Monthly Archives: May 2019

To Penang

And just like that our Vietnam sojourn is over. In hindsight I think we would skip Hué and spend more time in Hanoi but that could be because our weather in Hué was unbearably hot and it was difficult to get motivated for anything. Hanoi, however, is much more interesting and deserves more time than we gave it.

We flew directly to Penang, wisely avoiding a potential repeat of our visa problem at Kuala Lumpur Immigration. When we arrived we confidently queued up behind the “All Passports” sign and I went first. “How long will you be staying in Malaysia?” the agent asked. I told her we have a yacht in Langkawi and asked for three more months. “Wait here,” she said, and she left her post and disappeared down the row of agents and around the corner. I called after her, “Do you want my yacht papers?” but she didn’t answer. Not again, I thought, and I looked over at Jack and shrugged.

Time passed. The people who had queued behind Jack grew impatient. I kept leaning around the booth to watch for her return, then turned toward the passengers behind Jack and shrugged to indicate I didn’t know what was happening. Eventually they all moved to another line as Jack and I grew more concerned. What could possibly be the problem?

After about 15 minutes the agent returned to her booth, stamped my passport and handed it over. “Did you want to see my yacht papers?” I asked again. She shook her head in dismissal and gestured for Jack to approach. “He’s with me,” I said. “Same deal.” She nodded, and as I stood off to the side, Jack was stamped in within seconds. I have no idea what to make of it but we’re legal for another 90 days.

We collected our luggage, skipped through customs and called a Grab car for the 30 minute ride to Georgetown. We intend to stay here, yet another UNESCO World Heritage site, for a few days before finally heading home to Escape Velocity. Most of our yachtie friends have sung the praises of Penang and I think if there were better yacht facilities there’d be more boats here than in Langkawi. Most folks either stop for a day or two on their way north or south or leave their boats elsewhere and come by ferry, air or car.

It was pouring rain. And by pouring, I mean like Costa Rica. Biblical. I even mentioned to Jack that I suspected Escape Velocity’s water tank was probably overflowing with rainwater from our passive collection system. Our driver said it had been raining for days. And with that I began to worry.

Escape Velocity relies on sunshine to function without us. The batteries that run the bilge pumps and keep the fridge and freezer working are kept charged by solar panels on the roof. Too many days without enough sunshine can drain the battery bank. When we’re there and monitoring things we can supplement the solar charging with a battery charger powered by a diesel generator but if we’re not there, well, nothing happens automatically.

I checked a few weather apps to see if Langkawi, a mere 70 miles north, was experiencing the same rain as Penang. It didn’t appear to be, and Jack convinced me that EV is fine and not to worry. I consider it part of my job to worry, but we’re finally in Penang and looking forward to it.

Our hotel, another cruiser recommendation, is modern and comfy with some seriously fancy fixtures. we just love these hotel visits where we can indulge in long hot showers and modern plumbing that’s not our responsibility to maintain.

I found a café about a kilometer from the hotel that advertised bagels so the next morning we hightailed it out the door into the steam heat of SE Asia rainy season to see for ourselves if they were real bagels and not just donut shaped bread. They were. We ordered toasted bagels with egg and cheese, plus bacon for Jack, and savored every bite. I like Penang already.

The historic area of Georgetown is famous for its street art and we sought out some, but the rain got to be too much and we took refuge where any self-respecting American goes in bad weather: to the mall. There are several huge ones in Penang and we both enjoy keeping up with what’s selling in the First World even if we don’t buy anything. We did get an extra set of mandolin strings for Jack at a gigantic music store, the second one we checked out. The first one was merely large, quite a difference from the tiny jam packed shop in Hanoi where Jack bought his new axe.

We tried more exploring on foot but with on and off showers it was clear that our planned time here is not going to entail our favorite pastime of café hopping and architecture gazing. With another check on the weather we gave up and reserved seats on a flight back to Langkawi the next morning. We’ll come back when it stops raining. There’s a lot to do here and we’d rather do it without carrying an umbrella.

As Jack predicted, Escape Velocity had fared well in our absence, and waiting for me at home was my new Firefly 5-string banjo made by Magic Fluke in Massachusetts. It’s a beautiful scaled down instrument that fits perfectly on the boat, yet has a real bluegrass sound. I can’t wait to learn to play. Dock neighbors beware! You may need earplugs for a while….

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Full disclosure 

Dear Escapees, In the interest of full transparency I have to confess that I’d first noticed, of all things, a mandolin hanging high on a string in the corner of a tiny six foot wide music shop, just a few blocks from our hotel, if you can call them blocks. You couldn’t see it from the street. I reached up and unhooked the tuner heads from a string, that’s when Marce turned to go. I said, “Hey how about that? it’s a nice mandolin.” I could imagine her massive eye roll even from behind. I asked the proprietor, “How much?” He adopted that pained expression all Vietnamese vendors can call up instantly. After pointing out the instrument’s features he smiled and said one million five hundred dong. I smiled and handed the instrument back to him.

I confess it wore on me. It was bigger than me, It called to me so much during our Ha Long trip that I pulled up my currency converter app figuring when I get back I could probably get him down to one million dong so that’s all I’ll take with me and if he won’t come down in price, I can’t get it. See how that works? It won’t be my fault, it’ll be fate. A kismet kinda thing. After all, what’s a million dong? Like $42 USD. What’s the worst that could happen? So as soon as we get back to our hotel room I ask M. if she’s up for a little walk, because I haven’t a clue where music row is. No. Ok I won’t be long. Johnny FairPlay here.

Look, there is no place I’ve found on this earth where it’s easier to get more profoundly lost than Hanoi. Somehow I stumble into the same music shop but he’s not there. Only his bitchy daughter is and she doesn’t care whether she sells this thing or not. Finally I resort to where’s the old guy? That’s when he walks in. Kismet, right? Initially he’s resistant to the one million dong concept, but with a beautiful example of pained proprietor face he eventually agrees. Now where is the case? Bitchy daughter looks through a large tub loaded with gig bags and hands me a cheap black bag with Ukulele stenciled in bold white letters. She wants 30,000 dong which is about $1.25 USD but I don’t have it. An even more pained version from the old guy who glances at his daughter then motions that I should go now.

Shopping in Vietnam is exhausting but if you’re successful in getting your price it can leave you feeling ebullient and alive.

Feeling especially alive I head toward Hoan Keim Lake and the most reliable ATM I know of. Get a million dong on the first try and watch powder blue uniformed street sweepers line up and do warm up exercises. This is a crazy intersection featuring seven roads leading into a large square of mayhem. There are no traffic signals, not that anyone would obey them. I decide to celebrate with a sidewalk table, a beer and a banh mi and just watch the show. Have a Graham Green moment. Just then a familiar face walks by. It’s my kayaking partner from Ha Long Bay. Of all the gin joints in Hanoi…etc. We sip a couple of cold Tigers and watch the madness with bemused smiles on our faces.

Full disclosure, I might have had several coldies but my story is that it was just two and I’m sticking to it.


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Ha Long has this been going on?

Once again the back and forthing, the “maybe this” or “how about that?” even the “should we go or should we stay?” was driving us crazy. There were so many companies and combinations of packages that finally we just threw ourselves on the mercy of the concierge at our hotel thinking they really didn’t want guests coming back pissed off from a bad experience.

Two days and one night on a sixteen cabin bay steamer. It’s really the only way to appreciate this UNESCO World Heritage site, but they aren’t giving these berths away and we’ll lose two precious days in Hanoi. It was a tough decision because let’s face it, we spend every night sleeping on a boat and we’ve seen a few islands in over 30,000 nm of sailing.

The morning of the tour we were contemplating a second leisurely run through our hotel’s buffet breakfast when the concierge came up to our table and informed us that instead of an 8:30 pickup they will be here in 15 minutes! They weren’t but it was a close thing. We were the first pickup so our little bus trundled a circuitous route through downtown Hanoi for nearly an hour to stop at half dozen other hotels to collect the rest of our fellow passengers, mostly young couples.

Unfortunately it was a gray day so not much to look at as we drove out of town and we were informed that we would be making a comfort stop in two hours. When we finally pulled off the road at a rest area I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that in reality it was a massive souvenir shop and we were to make our way through the gift gauntlet to meet our bus on the other side. Immediately we were overwhelmed by massive sculptures and giant polished mineral boulders. Our personal sales associate, noticing our astonishment, leaned in and assured us in a conspiratorial tone, “We ship anywhere in the world!”

By the time we waded through acres and acres of every kind of Vietnamese souvenir we found the checkout counters and that’s when Marce discovered a large display of Pepperidge Farm products. It had been awhile. I guess by the time you get to checkout without your own personal mineral boulder you are not considered a high roller but they’ve just got to get something out of you…and they did. Cheddar Goldfish crackers at 187,000 dong ($8/bag.)

We piled into the little bus and another two hours later disgorged into the ship’s launch which took us and our luggage out to our boat and a sun-dappled lunch. Our room had classic louvered doors, an en suite bathroom and a tiny private balcony. It looked a proper bay steamer stateroom. Soon we were underway, navigating around small islands shaped like gigantic dragon teeth as far as the eye can see.

Of course the Vietnamese have creation myths about how Ha Long Bay was made, naturally involving gigantic dragons descending into the bay and something about swirling its tail making at last count well over 3000 limestone islands. The Bay encompasses 1,500 sq. km. so in two days there’s only so much of it you’re going to see.  

A few hours later we anchored in the lee of a shapely spike of limestone and were shuttled by launch to a small fishing village for a bit of kayaking and a visit to a pearl farm.

Back aboard our boat we were ready for a beautiful sunset but as the sun sank lower a misty fog moved in and only a glass of wine could console us.

Dinner was abundant and well presented, with extra sides for Marce and the other vegetarians. While we were the oldest couple on the boat, as we usually are these days, we seemed to be accepted and included. We passed on Asia’s obsession with karaoke, our scheduled nighttime entertainment, and retired to our cabin and our Pepperidge Farm goldfish.

In the morning we steamed for an hour or so in the rain to another island and while the rest of the guests visited a cave, M and I stayed onboard to appreciate the scenery in peace and quiet while we could.

For the rest of the morning we motored back through the islands to the harbour in increasingly bleak weather. Towards the end the kitchen staff gave a cooking demonstration and the guests learned how to make spring rolls which became part of our lunch. And just like that we were at anchor, piled into the launch and into a bus for the 4-1/2 hour ride to Hanoi.

Back at the hotel the concierge eagerly awaited the verdict. Thoroughly enjoyable, we assured him.

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Humane treatment

Morning found us walking purposefully south and west of our hotel, navigating via Google maps on my phone because we found it difficult to follow the tourist map our hotel concierge gave us. We zigged and zagged a number of doglegs around Hoan Kiem Lake, dodged traffic, made vague promises of “later” to groups of school children wanting to practice their English, and fought the temptations of inviting streets and alleyways. After about 30 minutes we turned a corner and saw what we were looking for, one of the remaining outer walls of Maison Centrale, the infamous Hanoi Hilton, where captured American pilots were imprisoned and tortured, some for more than eight years, during the “American War.” When I saw the recognizable wall, my breath caught in my throat and I anticipated another difficult morning.

We paid our admission fee, entered though the main arch and picked up our headphones and players for the audio tour.

As it happened most of the tour focused on the construction of the prison by the French in the late 19th century and the abominable conditions experienced by the Vietnamese patriots who were imprisoned there. The place was called “hell on earth” and the French were said to use “ruthless and inhumane torture against patriotic and revolutionary prisoners.” Exhibit after exhibit detailed the meager food rations, the beatings, the stench, the killings by guillotine, the attempted escapes and subsequent recaptures and punishments, and of course the heroic acts of the patriots to subvert their French rulers.

After the overthrow of the French in 1954 the Vietnamese took over the prison, and from 1964 to 1972 during the “war of destruction against North Vietnam” the prison held captured US pilots.

Our audio tour painted a happy picture of war prisoners being well looked after, playing basketball, decorating Christmas trees, preparing holiday dinners. We’ve been told a different story.

Later I looked up the tap code that we’ve heard about so many times from survivors of the Hanoi Hilton and found this.

We left Maison Centrale in a glum mood and walked back toward the center of town. We had lunch on a balcony overlooking the cathedral and the setting lifted our spirits while we batted around doing an overnight cruise on Ha Long Bay. We wanted to do it, but it would eat up two full days of our time in Hanoi and we were really enjoying the energy of the city and hated to leave. Choosing a tour operator was also causing some agita, as there are dozens of them and the guidebooks and online sources are full of warnings of low quality, unsafe or unscrupulous companies. What to do, what to do?

We pushed that dilemma to the back burner and enjoyed the afternoon and evening. shopping, eating, and doing the usual Schulz Aimless Wandering that we’ve perfected over the years.

Back towards our hotel we found ourselves on Musical Instrument Street and while we were marveling over some of the unidentifiable native instruments Jack spotted a mandolin, a target of his obsession over the years. He recently bought a ukulele bass and wisely talked himself out of adding another instrument to the growing onboard collection.

As darkness fell activity spilled out into the streets and we returned to our hotel to freshen up and rest before tackling dinner.

It was Cinco de Mayo so like all good Americans we opted for Mexican again and enjoyed two-for-one margaritas and about the best quesadilla I’ve ever had. In Hanoi.

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H4 U3

We didn’t plan it especially for this reason but our tour of Vietnam includes four cities beginning with H: Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An, Hué and our final stop, Hanoi. We also planned three UNESCO sites, Hoi An Ancient Town, the Citadel in Hué and our last intended site, Ha Long Bay, which isn’t really near Hanoi but that’s how you get there.

After the dead heat of Hué I was glad to be going further north and hoping to find cooler temps. We did, but we also got our first cloudy weather, and eventually, rain. We had pushed the calendar a little and were on the cusp of rainy season so we weren’t surprised at that, and really, in a big city, rain is rarely a deterrent to activity.

We settled into our hotel by mid afternoon, giving us plenty of time to reconnoiter the neighborhood. Right away we noticed that the shops are largely organized like a giant department store, with one street mostly hardware stores, one street baby clothes, several streets toys, etc. Our hotel was in Notions department with separate shops selling buttons, zippers, fasteners, beads and so on. If my feet would hold out I’d have walked the streets for days just to discover the categories.

The scary Vietnamese telecom system is on full view in Hanoi and apparently kept in good nick.

We decided Hanoi is even more chaotic than Saigon but we enjoyed navigating the crazy traffic and crowded streets, appreciating the architecture and the way the city seems to be held together by sheer determination and a little luck.

Our hotel concierge tipped us on the night market happening around the corner on the evening of our arrival so we joined the fray and negotiated the crush of humanity for about an hour and a half before taking refuge in a quiet restaurant for dinner. The food would surely have been better out in the market but we needed real chairs to sit in, and a bit of air conditioning.

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May the fourth

Today is the March for Science and we wish we could participate in a local event but it’s a travel day for us. Two years ago we were in New Zealand on the day and we had our own march despite our remote location.

This year the March for Science appropriately falls on Star Wars Day, all the more reason to celebrate science in all its branches, everywhere, by everyone. Science isn’t something you decide to agree or disagree with. There aren’t “two sides” to science. It’s the fundamental underpinnings of everything over, under, around and through us. And I say hats off to every scientist, past, present and future, who furthers our understanding of the world.

May Fourth has a darker meaning and for me it’s become a personal day of remembrance, a meditation on peace, and a ritual of thanksgiving. It was on this day in 1970 that the Ohio National Guard opened fire on students at Kent State University who were protesting the American invasion of Cambodia, killing four and injuring nine others. It was a shocking act of violence against unarmed young adults exercising their right to free speech in a country we were being told was fighting a war halfway around the world to protect those very rights. I can remember the horror I felt that my country turned its weapons on its own citizens. Ten days later a similar shooting at Jackson State University in Mississippi left 2 student protestors dead and injured 12 more. Every year on this day I think of those students and the soldiers who killed them and hope that one day we will have peace on earth for all people.

On May 4th, 2014, forty-four years after the Kent State massacre, while I was pondering how to memorialize the event, we lost our rig to the Pacific Ocean on a fine sailing day when a critical piece of hardware failed without warning 450 miles from the nearest land. We were not injured, and except for the loss of sail power we were not disabled. We had sufficient fuel, water and food to make it back to safety. We were able to make repairs and continue our journey less than a year later, and we will always be grateful that what could have killed us or at least ended our plans, instead taught us patience and led us to experiences we never imagined.

Life is cruel and wonderful. We always hope for more wonderful than cruel, but we have no choice but to take it as it comes. Breathe in peace; breathe out love.

May the Fourth be with you.

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When In Hué

When we finally reached Hué our driver had a hard time finding our hotel. That’s because it was tucked down a narrow alley barely wide enough to accommodate a car and generally packed with motorbikes and backpackers squeezing past each other and the pedestrians. We learned there are quite a few alleys like this in our Hué neighborhood and we were to discover restaurants and cafés hidden in these tiny lanes. Out on the streets eateries spilled out into the sidewalks And like everywhere else in Vietnam, diners perch on child-sized plastic chairs at low tables. I don’t know why they don’t use adult sized chairs but my knees would definitely not be able to negotiate those chairs.

We had no plan for our time here except to see the Citadel, another UNESCO site. Our friends who’ve been here were of mixed opinions, from “we loved it” to “there’s not much there.” The stifling heat that nearly felled us in Hoi An followed us here and unlike Saigon there are few air conditioned cafés to take refuge in when the midday humidity saps your energy and dulls your brain. We spent the afternoons in the cool sanctuary of our hotel room or a cafe with a fan blowing directly on us. We had to.

The Citadel is surrounded by a moat and walls, with very few walkways through the massive ornate gates.

If you are told, when asking directions, that the entry gate is around the other side, you’ve just lost half a day. It’s big. There are virtually no signs or directions posted. When finding ourselves in the vicinity we decided to reconnoiter and while we couldn’t find the actual entrance, we did find a nice little lunch spot which was friendly to vegetarians. Getting Veitnamese to make our favorite banh mi without meat seems to offend most of them. I’m a simple man. I go with the pork. 

Along the Perfume River we admired the Eiffel-designed bridge which bears an uncanny resemblance and construction techniques to the Smithfield Street bridge in Pittsburgh.

Walking across we were startled to see that Christo may have been here.

The following day our assault on the Citadel began in earnest with a Grab ride in an effort to save the legs. During the “American war” our country bombed the bejesus out of the Citadel, easy to find along the Perfume River and so big you can’t miss it, and the Vietnamese have been restoring it ever since. The site includes three walled enclosures and the signage is so poor that the Imperial City is probably here in these photos somewhere, it’s just that how would one know?

One dragon looks pretty much like another so you compose and shoot randomly. Turns out these walls contain a massive fort with, in its day, the largest guns in the world.

In our day, the only way the finish off this town was with giant mojitos at the Secret Garden just down the alley from our hotel.

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Way to Hue

I don’t know about you but I honestly haven’t a clue what made us suddenly veer across the street and book a ride over the Hai Van pass. This has been the subject of numerous discussions, and there are literally hundreds of tiny tour vendor booths in Hoi An and I guess we’d had enough of “on the other hand” and “but this one’s 23,000 dong cheaper,” which turns out to be about one USD less. It’s a matter of trust because you have to ride over the pass in a private car. Even the two seemingly disembodied legs sticking out from under the counter at the the tour booth didn’t deter us. Will our driver speak English? A little, which in Vietnamese speak means not at all.

Ok, what’s for dinner?

The next morning, feeling fat and lethargic after taking full advantage of the free full breakfast buffet, we had time to go over the free brochure provided and it turns out they’ve thrown in a free stop at a venue called Marble Mountain, which in fact is five mountain peaks so I guess the other four are also free. Our car arrived on time and whisked us off towards The Marvelous Marble Mountains. On arrival we were encouraged to enter through the marvelous Marble Mountains souvenir and carved marble statuary shop. The sculptures were massive, and any of them could sink Escape Velocity.

Luckily our assigned sales associate kept us in close proximity in case we forgot what we were there for. She gave a constant stream of helpful hints like, “We ship anywhere in the world!”

The good news at the mountain is that instead of a typical thousand-step staircase to reach the caves, all one has to do is push button number six in the not so free elevator provided and sure as Bob’s your uncle, there you are.

A short stroll along the cliff side led to, wait for it, 176 steps to access the actual caves.

In this part of the world China is king but really, how many dragons can you marvel at without losing your mind? Yours Truly has a finite limit and I suppose that goes for Buddhas, lying or otherwise, pictures of Jesus, Mary, and the whole entourage. It’s amusing to watch the multitudes line up under shafts of sunlight filtering down through holes in the ceiling only to strike a beatific pose bathed in its holy light.

So where was I?

Ah caves, and this one has an interesting history. It turns out the North Vietnamese used these caves as a hideout and hospital holding many hundreds of soldiers, right under the noses and within earshot of an American air base outside of Da Nang. Of course back then there was no number six button on an elevator. Ropes and rock climbing got them up into the caves and local partisans kept them resupplied.

On the way back down we successfully avoided the Marvelous Marble Mountains souvenir and carved marble sculpture shops’ aggressive sales people and, back in the car, conversation was muted due to the fact that only two of us understood any English.

Suddenly the driver’s navigation gear, which heretofore had been largely silent, piped up in what sounded a lot to Marce like heavily accented English. What it said, I couldn’t tell you but it seemed to be repeating the same phrase. Marce’s best guess was “Ess. Key. Car. Islam. eWreck. Ted.” I thought it was just Vietnamese for “Turn left here.”

We’re off to the Hai Van Pass. At 4,000 feet it’s said to have the most spectacular view in all of Vietnam and it’s why you take a private car to Hué instead of the bus at one fifth the price, which goes through a tunnel at sea level. We’ve been looking forward to this all week.

(Oops, there it is again. “Ess. Key. Car. Islam. eWreck. Ted.” Now it’s repeating every two minutes.)

Whoa, what a great view! We ask the driver to pull over for a photo op which takes a while due to language problems.

The higher we go up the mountain the more misty it gets. Back in the car it’s “Ess. Key. Car. Islam. eWreck. Ted.” with increasing frequency. Finally we summit in the clouds in a chilly mist with a view of fifty feet.

On foot we continue to climb and stumble onto a machine gun pillbox which I thought was a nice touch to crown the top of the mountain.

We declined a suggested trip through the mountaintop souvenir shop so there was nothing to it but to start down the other side. 

“Ess. Key. Car. Islam. eWreck. Ted.”

Soon we began to snicker trying to come up with better possibilities. After a while our driver noticed our laughter and reached up to the nav unit and popped out a tiny micro SD chip. Marce took one look and said, “Aha! SD card is not detected!” Mystery solved, but despite the driver’s frequent attempts to shut the damn thing up, that was our soundtrack for the next 3-1/2 hours, until we reached Hué.

“SD card is not detected.”


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