Summer 2004 Trip Schedule
Here's what we'll be doing in Vietnam on our Common Ground Journeys trip this summer.....
Day 1, July 24: Fly from the U.S. or elsewhere, bound for Hanoi.
Day 2, July 26: Arrive in Hanoi (ha NOI). Some of you may arrive at different times, depending where in the world you're coming from. Vietnam Airlines has direct flights from Hong Kong, and also from Paris and other places. We will be met at Hanoi's Noi Bai airport by our guide from VYC Travel, and transportation into Hanoi will be provided. We will have lost a day crossing the International Date Line.
Day 3, July 27: We'll spend a day in Hanoi, doing a tour of the city and then relaxing. Our tour will include the grounds of the presidential palace, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the small house on stilts where Ho actually lived, the lake there, and the wonderfully green grounds that extend all the way to the One Pillar Pagoda--which the Vietnamese have rebuilt several times after it was destroyed by a foreign enemy. We'll visit the Temple of Literature, the extensive grounds of which have been a center of learning since the 15th Century, and where the names of successful doctoral candidates are written in stone.
If you love Vietnamese food, you will have come to the right place! Meals are presented differently in Vietnam than at a Vietnamese restaurant in the U.S. There will be a large bowl of rice placed among us, along with other bowls of meats and vegetables that you mix with rice, in a smaller bowl that is yours. There are excellent sauces. Chopstick familiarity is helpful, but some folks have brought a small set of flatware with them. See the photos of food elsewhere on this site, when available.
Day 4, July 28: On this day, we will leave Hanoi in the morning, bound for Ba Be National Park. It's some six hours north and just a little west of the capital city. We'll have lunch enroute, very possibly at the place pictured in Bac Kan, and still arrive in time for a walk in the thick forest that afternoon. We'll stay in nice, comfortable (but not luxurious) guesthouses near the park headquarters.
Day 5, Jul 29: In the morning, we'll board a boat on the Nang River and go downstream past the entrance to Ba Be lake. We'll walk to a waterfall, and enjoy a hearty lunch served by an ethnic minority family. Then we'll boat onto the lake, visit Fairy Pond, learn the legend of Wizard Island, and cruise to a minority village before we return to our guesthouses for the night.
Day 6, July 30: We'll drive from Ba Be, via Hanoi, to Ha Long. Breakfast and lunch will be on the road.
Day 7, July 31: Ha Long is beside Ha Long Bay, where there are thousands of islands just offshore. The geology of this will be explained as we boat out to a limestone cave on one of the islands. A good trail goes through this imaginatively lighted cave. We'll boat back to Ha Long again, and drive to Cuc Phuong National Park which is south of Hanoi.
Day 8, Aug 1: On this day in Cuc Phuong, we'll walk a loop trail in the park. It will probably be the one that is a seven kilometer (km) loop up past a cave where prehistoric man once lived and past the "Thousand Year Old Tree." The trail is excellent but goes heartily up and down, through thick forest that is interesting in itself.
After lunch we'll go just outside the gate at Cuc Phuong to visit the Primate Rescue Center. As you may know, primates are heavily endangered and this is a place where Vietnam is promoting their very existance. One of the animals we'll see is the most endangered primate in all the world.
The guest houses at Cuc Phuong are quite adequate, plus we may be awakened in the morning by a chorus of gibbons in the forest! We were in January of this year.
Day 9, Aug 2: On this day, we may do a boat trip near Ninh Binh and/or visit an ancient capital of Vietnam. Then we'll drive the 30 miles or so back to Hanoi for dinner. We'll see a water puppet show, which is an experience not to be missed. After that, we'll board a southbound sleeper train (which I found to be very clean and comfortable) for an overnight ride to Dong Hoi.
Day 10, Aug 3: We'll arrive at the Dong Hoi station at eight in the morning, and be met by drivers who will take us several kilometers to Phong Nha Cave. Visiting the cave requires a boat ride on the broad river, and then the boat goes right into the cave. Motorized until then, the boatperson will shut down the motor and skull the boat deep inside. We can then walk another good trail through other cave passages and arrive back near the mouth of the cave. There we will reboard our boat and be taken back to our vehicles.
Just outside Phong Nha Cave was one head of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, visible from the cave entrance. In the winter of 2004, my guide was Tran Xuan Hung of VYC, who in 1999 had bicycled down the Ho Chi Minh Trail from here to the south. His trip was with a group of Vietnamese citizens who were honoring the part played by the Trail in the history of their country.
It is hard to overstate the meaning of the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the Vietnamese. Their country has a long history of defeating nations larger than itself, and this trail is definitely a part of that. Hung's 1999 trip was made prior to the new Ho Chi Minh Highway that roughly parallels the old trail network. It was a last-chance way to honor those who had struggled there. To set it apart from ordinary highways, the new centerline is yellow, not white.
We'll drive a spectacular part of the new highway later, but this afternoon we'll continue down the old Highway One to Vinh Moc and the Vinh Moc Tunnels. Nonmilitary in nature, this is where a whole village lived for several years to escape bombardment.
Day 11, Aug 4: We'll drive Highways One and Nine to the Dakrong Bridge--a one-tower suspension bridge over a deep canyon. There, we'll turn south on the new Ho Chi Minh Highway and drive through a very scenic mountain area, in a region where yet another ethnic minority lives. Their houses are distinctive and the people themselves are beautiful.
We will emerge from the hills into the northern end of the A Shau Valley, and check into a guesthouse in A Luoi. This is a bustling town where motorbikes buzz up and down the main road, which is the Ho Chi Minh Highway. If even a hint of this existed thirty years ago, I do not remember it. I looked up past the multi-story A Luoi city hall and saw a bare mountaintop on the east side of the valley. It had been "Eagle's Nest" at one time, and I had seen the A Shau Valley first from there, long before.
Hung and I wanted to drive south down the valley, but we could not. It is some sort of restricted area and permission must be gotten from provincial headquarters. A visit to the local police station didn't help, though the police were very friendly and cordial. We will have that permission during our summer trip, and can explore the valley. We did drive down-valley a few kilometers--I then got out of the car and just walked along the road. For a long time, I'd wanted to walk in the A Shau and just enjoy it. It is a special place, though not wilderness.
Yes, there is war history here, but war sites are not the purpose of our trip. Our purpose is to find beauty in the land and join the people in their culture. The A Shau is a hidden valley among the mountains. Facilities will be quite adequate if not luxurious.
Day 12, Aug 5: We can explore the A Shau a little more, but this day is for driving out of the valley on Highway 49 to the city of Hue (whay). As elsewhere, fairly early means better photography and we can decide where we want this to happen. Our route will cross the Truong Son range. I thought this would be through thickly forested mountains. There are certainly mountains, but not the thick forest I expected. I don't know whether to blame past defoliation, or over-enthusiastic, ongoing wood cutting. Nevertheless, the route to Hue is wild and beautiful.
You will find the food in Hue to be a little bit different--and excellent. In a word, it is somewhat spicier. There are Vietnamese restaurants in the U.S. that specialize in the local cuisine of this city, as do the restaurants in Hue!
Day 13, Aug 6: We will visit the famous Hue citadel today. From this large compound--with its moat, big wall, and elaborate architecture within--the Nguyen emporers ruled Vietnam. Also within are numerous bronze castings--decorated columns, large urns, and other things. Anyone with a background in metalwork will appreciate these. I suspect the "lost wax" method of casting was used. The ability to make things by casting bronze was an early mark of at least one ancient civilization in this general region.
Time permitting this morning, we will visit the tomb of one Nguyen emporer on the outskirts of Hue. There will be lunch in the city.
Bach Ma National Park is a fairly short drive south from Hue. We will turn from Highway One and drive up a mountain nearly to its peak. It is an exciting drive--not from danger, but from what we'll see. There will be time in the afternoon for a short walk on one of several trails.
Day 14, Aug 7: This morning we'll walk to the highest point in Bach Ma National Park. It's two kilometers, and from there we'll be able to see both Hue to the north, and Da Nang to the south. We may return the same way, or we may walk a different trail back down again.
The road down the mountain is so spectacular that I'm thinking many of you would enjoy walking part of it, instead of riding. If I'm right, we'll do that. Then the vehicles can take us on down to the bottom, where people may enjoy another walk--this time through a bustling marketplace that's in the village on Highway One. You probably won't get through this market without a mango, or other tropical fruit!
From here, we'll drive over Hai Van Pass, which has long been a cultural, political, linguistic, and climatic divide in Vietnam. In Da Nang, we'll stop at the Cham Museum. Here, we'll learn much about the ancient Kingdom of Champa which existed in this part of Vietnam until about the time of Columbus (1472, to be exact). The Cham are now a ethnic minority in Vietnam.
We'll drive to our hotel in Hoi An, which was a historic seaport named Faifo, and is present day shopping center in central Vietnam.
Day 15, Aug 8: We will drive south and west from Hoi An, and walk less than a kilometer to the capital of the Kingdom of Champa. The Cham "Holy Land" is an amazing place--already very old when America was new. Many of the buildings were religious in nature. Some are rather similar to "Cham towers" that we'll see later in the trip, only more elaborate. Unfortunately, some of the historic buildings here were bombed in 1969. Nevertheless, we'll come from My Son seeing Vietnam in a new light.
Day 16, Aug 9: This will be a free morning in Hoi An, which is the shopping capital of central Vietnam. We'll have an early lunch, and leave for the Da Nang airport at noon for our flight at 2:10 to Nha Trang.
Day 17, Aug 10: Nha Trang (nya tran) is one of Vietnam's premier beach resorts, and this is a free day. Enjoy the beach, or join a snorkeling trip out to one of the islands. Other local tours are offered, and can usually be arranged at the hotel desk.
Day 18, Aug 11: We'll drive down the coast to Phan Thiet. On the way, we'll visit several interesting places including the fine Cham tower at Phan Rang. Phan Thiet is also a beach resort location in Vietnam.
Day 19, Aug 12: After enjoying Phan Thiet (fan ti et), we'll drive in the afternoon to Ho Chi Minh City (more often still called Saigon by the people who live there).
Day 20, Aug 13: On this day, there will be a tour of Saigon and then free time in the afternoon to explore the city.
Day 21, Aug 14: We'll go to Tan Son Nhat Airport and fly to the U.S. (or elsewhere). This time, we'll cross the International Date Line in the other direction, so that we'll arive in the U.S. on the same calendar day we left Vietnam.
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