Author Archives: Mary Anne McDonald

MA’s pix from Beijing – not great quality but my goal was to give you a sense of scale

one of the many housing clusters on the road into Beijing from the port
one of the many housing clusters on the road into Beijing from the port
an area between the public square and the buildings where dignitaries stayed if they wanted to speak with the Emperor (and if he granted their request to speak to him) (Forbidden City)
an area between the public square and the buildings where dignitaries stayed if they wanted to speak with the Emperor (and if he granted their request to speak to him) (Forbidden City)
Forbidden City courtyard tiles- not bad for being over 500 years old
Forbidden City courtyard tiles- not bad for being over 500 years old
Forbidden City Fire Extinguisher - large urns of water were kept in case there was a fire in the wooden structures
Forbidden City Fire Extinguisher – large urns of water were kept in case there was a fire in the wooden structures
one corner of Tiananmen Square
one corner of Tiananmen Square; Great Hall of the People is on the left (you can just see a corner of the building)
The Museum of China, across the street from T Square
The Museum of China, across the street from T Square
the owner of the Hutong house talks with a guest from the ship in the courtyard/quadrangle
the owner of the Hutong house talks with a guest from the ship in the courtyard/quadrangle
Hutong courtyard with plants and caged birds in center
Hutong courtyard with plants and caged birds in center
One of the many pavilions at the Summer Palace
One of the many pavilions at the Summer Palace
one of the many bridges at the Summer Palace
one of the many bridges at the Summer Palace
we are the Great Wall, trying to look inscrutable.  Notice the blue sky at 11 am
we are the Great Wall, trying to look inscrutable. Notice the blue sky at 11 am
a maintenance lady at the Great Wall - I thought her tool looked like chopsticks
a maintenance lady at the Great Wall – I thought her tool looked like chopsticks
back to the ship at 4pm and look at the smog that has settled over the area (Beijing is over 200 miles away); that structure in the foreground is a wing of the terminal building
back to the ship at 4pm and look at the smog that has settled over the area (Beijing is over 200 miles away); that structure in the foreground is a wing of the terminal building
a shot from the top of the ship - if you peer through the smog you can see just a few of the big machines at the port
a shot from the top of the ship – if you peer through the smog you can see just a few of the big machines at the port

 

3 days in Beijing

Beijing, China                                                 Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The bottom line, if you don’t want to read further, is that this is just about the biggest place we have ever seen – more people, more land, more buildings, bigger buildings, more of everything than we ever could have imagined. We cannot even begin to explain the history of China or of Beijing, but suffice to say, it’s long and complex (kind of like this post turned out to be).

We departed Beijing last night (Tuesday ), after spending 3 days viewing as many sights as we could. Sunday (the day we landed) started a three-day national holiday, the “Sweeping of the Tombs.” This is a major holiday here where the dead are honored, and many Chinese use this time to take a family holiday, so Beijing was especially crowded as it is a major destination for Chinese visitors as well as foreign visitors.

The port where we docked seems to go on for miles and miles, and it probably does in reality – I have never seen so many container or cranes and other loading equipment – as far as the eye could see, and then some.

The cruise line organized this Beijing trip for 700 of the passengers – a miracle of logistics. We found it funny, but kind of reassuring, that an ambulance actually accompanied the 24 buses that got people around to various sites (not one ambulance per bus, but one ambulance when all of the buses were going together to a site). Apparently someone fell at the Great Wall a couple of years ago and broke a leg, so now the cruise line plans for an ambulance to join the crowd when we are all headed in the same direction. It seemed generally that about half of us visited some sites and half visited others on Sunday, and then we switched on Monday. A lot of folks had been to Beijing before so they didn’t join the organized tour but went out on their own. Very brave when the street signs are not in the Western alphabet and many local folks do not speak English.

On our way Sunday morning from the ship into Beijing (260 kilometers – a 3 hour trip if there is no traffic), we passed a large cemetery where the Sweeping of the Tombs was being celebrated – every tomb was decorated with vibrant flowers, and families were celebrating and setting off fireworks, etc. Very festive and respectful in a culture where ancestors are worshipped.

But the real news on Sunday was that a trip from the port into the city takes 3 hours on a good day – this gave us an inkling of the size of the city and the country, the number of people, and the scope of it all, which is just amazing. Early on during that ride into the city I started taking pictures of the incredible housing projects that I saw – very tall apartment buildings that popped up in clusters of 20 or more. After about 20 minutes I couldn’t take any more pictures – it was overwhelming how many residential units there are, how many roads there are, how much construction you can see as new places go up, how many trees and shrubs are being planted by those roads, and how I had never seen anything on this scale – and this wasn’t even close to the heart of Beijing. I learned later that Beijing actually has 6 ring roads, and I guess when a city is 6500 square miles that is what you need.

Beijing is one of China’s ancient cities, and it started off as a much smaller place, with a large wall around it, a moat, several watchtowers and a bell tower (to let people know when the city gates were about to close), and all those nice old touches.

Beijing is now the national center of politics, economics, education (over 500 universities!), culture, trade and communication. Approximately 20 million people reside in Beijing, and I think at least a few million more came in for the long weekend.

As we went around central Beijing in a tour group arranged by the ship, I saw traffic circles that looked as pretty as Park Avenue NYC looks in the spring (flowers everywhere), but there were 6 lanes of traffic in each direction in the Beijing intersections, and lots of cars, trucks, motorcycles, motor scooters, bicycles and pedestrians in those traffic circles. A bit chaotic but everyone seemed able to negotiate it very well.

You may recall that Beijing hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, and built new large stadia and venues for the events. Good thing, since they will also be hosting the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.

On Sunday we saw the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square – Joe got some great pix and I tried to get some that show the scale of these places – just enormous. Tiananmen Square is a large plaza where “the people” could assemble when the Emperor wanted to address them. It is just across the street from the Forbidden City, and the Great Hall of the People is on one side of the Square while the Museum is on the other.

The Forbidden City is surrounded by a moat and a wall 10 meters high. Once inside the Forbidden City, we saw many public buildings that were on the outer perimeter, where “the people” could muster. Inside of that were large courtyards and buildings in which the Emperor conducted official business – buildings for visiting dignitaries, buildings for the staff, etc.   And then after another large courtyard you get to the buildings for the household goods and the food, and then to the Emperor’s residence, and then to the Empress’s residence, etc. We tried to capture some of this in the pictures, but it is hard to describe the scale of this, and I am not sure the pix will do it justice.

The Forbidden City is where 24 Emperors held their imperial palace, and it covers 180 acres (with over 8700 rooms) – there is a very large park (Imperial Park) at the end of the City, with the traditional water features, stone work, and greenery.   In the Forbidden City, the government limits visitors to 80,000 day max – a LOT of people.

Tiananmen Square (109 acres) is the biggest plaza we have seen in a city – and on Sunday it was full of visitors. Quite a different place than the photo that we saw in 1989 with tanks lined up and a lone student in front of them protesting.   We saw the kind of scene you’d see at any park on a weekend – lots of families with children, having a great time in the sunshine.

Monday we visited the Hutong – the traditional housing in this area – houses built around a quadrangle for a family (3 generations, usually) to reside. These areas are being demolished over time to make way for more dense housing, but there is some thinking that it’s beneficial to keep these “lane houses” to show how things were in times gone by. We spent some time with one of the house owners to hear the history of the family and to learn how things have changed over time. Given the political changes over the ages in China, suffice to say that it is complicated – if I got it right, the land is now owned by the government but the buildings are privately owned, although the land and buildings were taken from the Emperor and his staff in the People’s Revolution. We’ll have to see if the future holds a place for greater private property rights.

We also visited the Emperor’s Summer Palace – a gorgeous place around a man-made lake of some size. The names of the various rooms in the Summer Palace were wonderful – the Hall of Longevity and Happiness, The Palace of Compassion and Tranquility, etc. We were able to take a little ferry ride around the lake, to observe some of its pavilions, halls, temples, bridges, etc.

I’ll do a separate post on the many ways the Summer Palace reminded me of Spring Lake.

Monday night we were treated to a special performance of traditional Chinese works at the Great Hall of the People, which is adjacent to Tiananmen Square – this is the building where the government officials meet, and where foreign dignitaries are met.   It is a building that holds 5000 people in its main chamber, and additional thousands in its adjacent chambers. Can’t say that I have ever seen a hall so large or a stage so high.

At the Great Hall, we enjoyed a delightful performance of Italian opera pieces, acrobatics, children’s song and other traditional dance and song – just incredible. When we left the performance we walked out to Tiananmen Square and the streetlights made a beautiful romantic scene along the wide boulevards (just sorry that I didn’t have a camera because it was a public building with high security). And on a modern note, one guest who left the Great Hall because he wanted to get back to the hotel took an Uber car and was happy to report today that it cost under US $3.

Tuesday was time for the Great Wall – I think Joe’s pix will do all the talking for this, other than to say that the Wall was built to protect China from invaders are Mongolia and other areas, and took 2000 years to build. It’s over 13,000 miles, and much of it is broken up, while some of it has been restored (like the place we saw today). The scale of it is hard to describe – it’s high on the hills (and there are a lot of mountains west of Beijing), and it runs along those mountains with lots of paths down the hills, and lots of towers where those who used to keep watch could use smoke to warn others along the wall of a problem/intrusion/etc.

After the trip to the Great Wall we headed back to the ship (another 3+ hours) and that’s when the weather allowed us to see the smog for which Beijing is known – it was a grey soup that limited vision and made my eyes smart. We were fortunate to have missed it during our days of touring the area.

So this trip to China has been one where we marvel at the creativity and the entrepreneurial spirit of the people, and one where we speculate about the power and strength represented by the structures and buildings Seems like a classic mix of communism (government) and capitalism (economy).   It will be interesting to see how the future unfolds for this giant country and its many people.

Pictures will follow from Joe and me.

Wishing you all the best,

Mary Anne

Pix from Xiamen and Shanghai (MA’s pix)

little one enjoying the Xiamen beach
little one enjoying the Xiamen beach
student nuns in Shanghai at the temple, on their way to service
student nuns in Shanghai at the temple, on their way to service
a monk at the service takes a quick call
a monk at the service takes a quick call
we were not permitted into the temple but we could take pix from the area outside the temple; this is a picture of the nun students at the prayer service
we were not permitted into the temple but we could take pix from the area outside the temple; this is a picture of the nun students at the prayer service
and now a student takes a call during the service....
and now a student takes a call during the service….
interior courtyard of the temple; note the clay roof tiles and the high rise buildings in the background - this temple is surrounded by buildings and construction
interior courtyard of the temple; note the clay roof tiles and the high rise buildings in the background – this temple is surrounded by buildings and construction
a garden tucked into the temple's free space
a garden tucked into the temple’s free space
a floral wall along part of the Bund (the Shanghai embankment on the Huangpu River)
a floral wall along part of the Bund (the Shanghai embankment on the Huangpu River)
flowers on a busy Shanghai street
flowers on a busy Shanghai street
part of a jade sculpture at the Arts and Crafts Research Institute
part of a jade sculpture at the Arts and Crafts Research Institute in Shanghai
a large jade sculpture of a town, from the Arts and Crafts Research Institute in Shanghai
a large jade sculpture of a town, from the Arts and Crafts Research Institute in Shanghai
detail from the large sculpture in the last picture
detail from the large sculpture in the last picture

Shanghai, China

Shanghai, China                                Thursday, March 31, 2016

Greetings from Shanghai! We have spent the better part of two days exploring this City, which has a relatively short but exciting past, and a very exciting future ahead of it. This is our third stop in China – the first was Hong Kong, which is a special administrative region, and the second was Xiamen (pronounced SHAH-men), an active port city on China’s southeast coast.

Now we have arrived at Shanghai, a port just inside the mouth of the Yangtze River (the 3400 mile river that is Asia’s longest and most important river).

Shanghai is China’s largest city, with a population of 25 million (that’s about as many people as live in Australia), and is the 8th largest city in the world. China’s total population is about 1.4 billion, which is over 4 times the population of the USA, and the landmass of the 2 countries is approximately the same.

As you know, China’s history spans thousands of years and includes a lot of invention and advances well before the western world (for example, thousands of years ago, the Chinese had standardized system of measures and a standardized writing system to facilitate trade and communication across the country). As Marco Polo reported on what he found in China, he was considered a lunatic – the western listeners in the late 1200s could not conceive of the Chinese advances he reported (coal, paper, paper money, a dictionary, etc.).

Shanghai was a small fishing village in the early 1800s. At that time, traders from Britain, France, Portugal and elsewhere were carrying on great trade with China, and those in Britain wound up paying their trade debts by selling opium to the Chinese.

In no time at all (so to speak), the Chinese leaders saw the trouble this opium was causing, and banned the foreign traders from China. The Brits convinced their government to go to war with China to re-open the trade (the first of the “Opium Wars”). The first Opium War was ended by a treaty which created 5 ports in China that were open to international trade, and Shanghai was one of them. It was to these ports that many religious organizations sent their missionaries to preach to the Chinese.

Britain, France, the US and others developed colonial settlements within Shanghai and along the Yangtze River once the first Opium War ended, and the French Concession area is still a highly regarded residential neighborhood in Shanghai (we spent some time there at the Arts and Crafts Research Institute, and it’s a very pretty area). These developments give Shanghai an interesting look – the traditional Chinese areas of the city are crowded and some “lane areas” still are in use as crowded low-grade housing; there are also wide tree-lined boulevards and neoclassical, art deco and other buildings in many areas. Cherry blossoms and magnolia trees line many streets.

The Bund is the spacious promenade on the Huangpu River, which divides old and new Saigon, and flows to the Yangtze. The Bund is the place to be – it is filled with tourists from all over China, and is very scenic.

Today, Shanghai is China’s economic center, and there are large financial service headquarters as well as other commercial towers clustered in the city. The heart of the city is surrounded by large residential apartment buildings – lots of them.

The city is served well by public transportation (cars are not too expensive, but the permits to own them are), and there are more and more parks and green areas appearing in the city with each year.

During our time here we saw some beautiful places, saw lots of people everywhere, and learned some interesting things about Shanghai’s history and culture.

  • Yesterday we visited a Buddhist temple and school; student monks and nuns had a service in which they chanted some mesmerizing tunes, while construction crews made a big racket next door to the school.   An enormous Buddha made from one single piece of jade sits on the second floor of the school, and gardens are kept meticulously in the little areas between the school buildings.
  • We also visited a traditional house from old Shanghai days (the Yu Yuan Gardens). It is one of the cultural treasures that wasn’t destroyed as part of the revolution (to Communism); it is a fabulous compound built for a family. There are various structures including 2 areas for performances, gardens and water features, pathways that divide so that the women could take an interior path away from the sun and external world, and other peaceful and beautiful attributes. Immediately outside its perimeter is a giant, crowded, noisy market that looks like Times Square on steroids. Quite a contrast (Joe got some pix).
  • Today we took a tour with an architect, and learned that the tower that sits on the bank of the Yangtze River (the Bund) was formerly used to provide weather indications. Jesuit missionaries in the west had a telegraph, and they would telegraph weather information to Shanghai; flags indicating the upcoming weather were flown so that captains could plan their trips accordingly.
  • And speaking of Jesuits, they are credited with giving China its reputation as a place for great needlepoint. Apparently the Jesuits provided the fabric for western religious institutions in China, and the Jesuit students did the needlepoint for these items.
  • And all those brides we have seen in Australia and Asia so far? No, they are not actual brides, at least not yet.   We learned that it is customary in this part of the world for couples to buy or rent several wedding outfits (up to ten), and have their pictures taken in different locations. The pix are then enlarged and displayed at the actual wedding, which is more of a feast than a marriage ceremony.
  • And because Shanghai did not require a visa for entry in its early days of growth, it became a refuge over the years for substantial numbers of Jews persecuted at various times in Russia, Germany and elsewhere.
  • One tour guide told us about the current dating scene, and related that the one-child policy has created large numbers of parents who are desperate for grandchildren. On weekends there is a corner in the large square where grandparents and parents of eligible-aged young adults gather (in crowds that number up to 800, in her opinion). These grandparents and parents have information available about the candidate, and they exchange information (pictures, height, education, career, assets, earnings, household skills, etc.). If they find a good possible match, they encourage their son/daughter to meet the prospect. Our guide says it’s one of those things where you agree so that your parents won’t nag you, but you just meet for 2 minutes, say hello, and that’s usually about the end of it. (I know, this is a weird story, but when you are stuck in traffic on a tour at the end of the day, the guides might tell you anything just to distract you!)

Sorry for such a long post – I wanted to get in as much as I could remember! I’ll sign off now.

Best,

Mary Anne

 

 

Hong Kong

The expo center in HK - reminds me of the Opera House in Sydney.
A construction site on a busy HK street – the scaffolding is made of bamboo!
P1000575
The expo center on HK Island; reminds me a bit of the Sydney Opera House.
P1000562
A little slice of the skyline in Hong Kong; you can see how close the mountains are behind this harbour-front bit of building.
a view of Victoria Harbour, with HK Island on the right and Kowloon (mainland) on the left; the City has reclaimed a lot of land and the harbor is smaller than it used to be.
a view of Victoria Harbour, with HK Island on the right and Kowloon (mainland) on the left; the City has reclaimed a lot of land and the harbor is smaller than it used to be.

Hong Kong                                         Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016

Greetings from Hong Kong! We are sad to spend Easter Sunday away from family and friends, but we hope you are all enjoying a lovely day.

We arrived in Hong Kong yesterday, and this is some city! It consists of many islands, although only a few are inhabited, and part of mainland China. About 7 million people live in Hong Kong, and 95% are Chinese. However, this is the business and finance hub of Asia, and lots of visitors from around the world come to the city for varying durations. Hong Kong has a large commercial port, and export/import business is big here.

Hong Kong has a lot of history, and it was only in 1898 when it began its modern story. After the Opium Wars (Britain forced China to open up trade, travel, etc.), Britain obtained the right to lease Hong Kong for 99 years. At the time, the area was almost entirely undeveloped and many criticized the chap who signed the deal, thinking it was a bad bargain. But the city grew and prospered, thanks in part to the deep and wide Victoria Harbour between the mainland (Kowloon) and Hong Kong Island. Today it is a clean, modern, sophisticated city.

Control of Hong Kong reverted to the Chinese in 1997, but it is a Special Administrative Region of China, with its own currency and its own rules (at least thus far). And it is a bastion of capitalism like you’ve never seen – luxury merchandise is for sale big-time – think of every fine store on 5th Avenue, Rodeo Drive, Bond Street, or the Short Hills Mall, and that is part of the Golden Mile in Hong Kong.

And wealth is on display in Hong Kong – there are stores selling Baby Dior, Baby Cavalli, Baby Armoni, etc. – and children (and adults) wearing the latest and greatest of every brand (some genuine, some counterfeit).

Add to this luxury plenty of open air markets, markets with stalls, night markets, jade markets, gold markets, and lots of markets for counterfeit luxury items, and that is also part of Hong Kong.

Toss in some beautiful British buildings, pretty parks, eateries of all types, and that is also part of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has been described as a vertical city – everything is densely packed and built up high – commercial buildings, residential buildings, cemeteries. About 20% of the residents own cars, and the population travels largely by bike, metro/subway or walking.

During our visit here we heard a lot about lucky numbers, fortune tellers, legends of benevolent dragons that protect the Chinese, and feng shui (the consultation of the elements to bring people into harmony with nature).  Because construction is going on all over Hong Kong (producing some high rise buildings that are beyond description), feng shui masters are kept very busy.

We heard one story about the construction of a large new skyscraper for a large Chinese bank. The building was designed with many angles and decorative diagonal beams that appear to slash its exterior. The feng shui master retained by that bank advised that the sharpness would inflict damage on a nearby competitive bank. The competitive bank retained its own feng shui master, who advised it to plant willow trees around its exterior, which would make it hard for the sharp edges of the new bank to inflict harm.

Hong Kong permits 3 types of gambling: racing (there is a beautiful old racetrack in town), lottery and football (soccer). Macau is about 90 minutes by fast ferry, and gambling there is thriving.

During our visit we enjoyed the skyline (Joe will post pix of this), a nice cruise around the harbor at sunset, a trip to Victoria Peak where you can look down on everything, Repulse Bay, trekking around town and through parks, and walking past the largest mosque in Hong Kong this morning as many ladies in Muslim traditional wear came out of the subway and entered their part of the mosque for prayer.

Joe and I send our best wishes to all for a blessed Easter.

Mary Anne

Central and Northern Vietnam

One of the many, many lantern shops in Hoi An, selling beautiful silk covered lanterns
One of the many, many lantern shops in Hoi An, selling beautiful silk covered lanterns

Friday, March 25, 2016                                              South China Sea

We spent the last 2 days in central and northern Vietnam – they are quite different from the southern visit to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City.  Da Nang is the large city in central Vietnam, and has a lot of the old colonial French architecture to see, amidst every conceivable type of shop.

We tromped around the Cham Temple ruins on an incredibly hot and humid morning, viewing what had previously been a compound of 70 Hindu temples in central Vietnam, until almost all of them were bombed during the Vietnam War.  That visit gave us an appreciation into what the soldiers in the forests of Vietnam were up against in terms of terrain and heat, to say nothing of their enemies.

We also visited Hoi An, an ancient trading city, and saw beautiful temples, lanterns, and silk and other textiles.

Last visit in central Vietnam was China Beach, where American soldiers used to go for R&R; it’s a lovely long beach and within biking distance from Da Nang.

Yesterday we saw some of northern Vietnam  when we sailed around Ha Long Bay, viewing the karst formations; karst is formed when limestone is dissolved by running water, creating conical hills with underground caves.

Legend has it that in Ha Long Bay, a family of dragons was sent by the gods to protect Vietnam against foreign invaders when it was a young country.  The dragons spit jewels and jade that formed a protective ring of barrier islands, and the Bay has hundreds of these formations to view, bearing names to indicate their shapes (Duck Island, Kissing Chickens Island, Flame Island, etc.).  The day was overcast but our trip was not rained out, so we had the chance to see some fishing villages along the Bay, and a lot of water traffic.

In the course of our visits we noticed that the northern and central areas are much cleaner than those we observed in the south, and have better roads and infrastructure.   We heard some different versions of how capitalism and communism co-exist than we had heard in the south, and we heard some references to winners and losers in the Vietnam War.

However, all regions of Vietnam appear to be growing in leaps and bounds.  Construction is going on everywhere, tourism is booming, and there is a lot of vitality in the air.

Tomorrow we will arrive in Hong Kong (we had our temperatures taken by a scanning device today to be sure that we are allowed to enter China).

Best wishes to all of you.

Mary Anne

Ha Long Bay and karst formations
Ha Long Bay and karst formations
Ha Long Bay - fishing village
Ha Long Bay – fishing village
The Boulevard along China Beach (like Da Nang's version of Ocean Avenue in Spring Lake)
The Boulevard along China Beach (like Da Nang’s version of Ocean Avenue in Spring Lake)
Ha Long Bay - close up of one of the limestone formations and its caves
Ha Long Bay – close up of one of the limestone formations and its caves
some new silk fashions for sale in Hoi An
some new silk fashions for sale in Hoi An
a resort on the Han River
a resort on the Han River

Purim and Brussels

What a day it has been;

We started the day with a lecture about ISIS from an excellent journalist, Stephen Cole, who could not have been more vocal about how serious the terrorism threat is.

This afternoon we had a Purim Festival with our ship’s rabbi, with great rejoicing over the feat of Esther, saving her people from the evil Haman.

And then we heard the news from Brussels.

You are all in our thoughts.  We hope you and yours are all safe and sound.

MA and JB

Saigon and Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam                                               March 22, 2016

Until this week, my gut reaction when hearing the word “Vietnam” was to cringe, recalling the 1970s and how our family sweated out the draft process, worried that brother Jim and his friends would wind up fighting a war. Thankfully our family was spared that fate, but many others were not so fortunate.

Having now spent 3 days in Saigon, I have a very different reaction to the word “Vietnam” and it is a feeling of hope. So many residents of Vietnam are under the age of 45 (and therefore didn’t personally experience the years of war with other nations), so plugged into the world via the internet and social media, and so literate and educated, that this is a society that seems to be going headlong right into a bright future.

While Vietnam is governed by a Communist party, the signs of capitalism flourish in Saigon – all manner of things are bought and sold, and the Vietnam economy prospers from its exports (cashews, coffee, rice, tea, etc.).

However, there are the rich and the poor, and everyone with whom we spoke frequently mentioned the gap (for example, “that’s a building where only rich people can buy apartments”). The tour guides and drivers we met talked often about saving money so that their children could attend good (private) schools and so that their parents could be taken care of (for many, especially non-government employees such as the farmers who have been a big part of the economy in the past, there are no pensions or old-age public health care arrangements, so the children who are now working wind up paying the hospital/doctor/other bills).

Cranes and building projects are everywhere, and the landscape varies from massive construction sites (office parks, factories, residential complexes) along the roadways that lead into Saigon City from the port and outer areas to tree lined boulevards and beautiful parks in the main part of the city, with French neo-classical colonial architecture next door to modern buildings, crumbling old buildings, and virtually anything else you can imagine.

We heard from locals during our visit that although the country is Communist-ruled, freedom of religion (90% of Vietnamese are Buddhists) and other freedoms are the norm; certainly there is freedom from road regulations – more motorbikes, scooters and bicycles that you can ever imagine, flying down roads in all directions, without many traffic lights or other guides, but remarkably low traffic accident rates.

There are 51 dialects spoken in Vietnam, and certainly the country has absorbed a lot of territories in its history. One lecturer on the ship summed up the country’s history this way: The Vietnamese fought the Chinese for 1000 years, the French for 100 years, and the Americans for 10 years. We noticed and heard from locals that white skin is valued for women; ladies generally will try hard not to let the sun make them tan.

During our visit, we saw an enormous wholesale market in Chinatown that looked and operated like something from a hundred years ago, shops on downtown streets that had the brands, look and feel of 5th Avenue NYC, and ladies outside those shops squatting down on the sidewalk cooking waffles over small open fires and selling them to passers-by. We heard that those in Saigon “live on the streets” in the sense that this is where life takes place, and it certainly seems that way. It is a vibrant city, and one we’d love to come back and explore more.

We also took a trip on the Mekong River – a very large river that is the lifeblood of southern Vietnam; it supplies the water for a large area (the Delta) that produces all types of crops. The Mekong River runs from China in the north down through 6 countries; China has dammed a lot of the river and this is affecting the downstream countries and the productivity of the river as salt water from the South China Sea becomes more of its content and affects its use in growing crops.

The Mekong is a muddy brown river, lined with old stilt houses and lean-tos that are still occupied although they look uninhabitable. In some of those old houses there are beekeepers, rice paper makers, wine makers and others who produce items through family labor in what we would call cottage industry – very old-school. We visited a floating market on the Mekong, and learned that commerce on the river is conducted via boat – you either motor/row/sail to a vendor, or the vendor comes to you. Picturesque but not pristine; the river is polluted with trash as are many of the roads we saw.

We are on our way to central and northern Vietnam, and we’ll see if the years have treated this area differently – the capital (Hanoi) has been a capital for many years, and it will be interesting to see if the free market influence is as strong as in Saigon.

Hope that you are all doing well.

Best,

MA

Banner for the Water Puppet Show in Saigon - an old art in which the puppets are manipulated by people behind a curtain, who have sticks connected to the puppets to make them move; very skillful work!
Banner for the Water Puppet Show in Saigon –
an old art in which the puppets are manipulated by people behind a curtain, who have sticks connected to the puppets to make them move; very skillful work!
A Buddhist temple in Chinatown; you can see joss sticks in the front, and spiral incense coils hanging from the ceiling, with purple and red papers containing the petitions requesting prayers.  We saw many tourists but also many locals worshipping at the temple.  Because so many people came to Vietnam by boat, this temple is dedicated to the gods and goddesses of water travel.  There is also a shrine to the god of business (who rewards his worshippers with prosperity).  The temple is open air, and you can see a plastic cover over the fan in the  upper right corner.
A Buddhist temple in Chinatown; you can see joss sticks in the front, and spiral incense coils hanging from the ceiling, with purple and red papers containing the petitions requesting prayers. We saw many tourists but also many locals worshipping at the temple. Because so many people came to Vietnam by boat, this temple is dedicated to the gods and goddesses of water travel. There is also a shrine to the god of business (who rewards his worshippers with prosperity). The temple is open air, and you can see a plastic cover over the fan in the upper right corner.
On the Mekong River at the floating market a lady cuts open a coconut and offers it to our guide for a drink; notice how the vendor squats low - we saw this everywhere as the way people hang out (not sitting or standing).
On the Mekong River at the floating market a lady cuts open a coconut and offers it to our guide for a drink; notice how the vendor squats low – we saw this everywhere as the way people hang out (not sitting or standing). In the background you see housing the businesses that line the river.
another boat at the floating market, this one filled with fruit; the vendor is bending down in the left side of the picture, wearing the traditional conical hat.  A husband and wife will live on the boat, getting replenishment inventory from their farms/gardens, and returning to their homes on land after they are done selling the crops.
another boat at the floating market, this one filled with fruit; the vendor is bending down in the left side of the picture, wearing the traditional conical hat. A husband and wife will live on the boat, getting replenishment inventory from their farms/gardens, and returning to their homes on land after they are done selling the crops.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day from Cambodia!

Happy St. Patrick’s Day from Cambodia!              March 17, 2016 7pm

We’ve left Malaysia and have now seen parts of Thailand and Cambodia, on our way to Vietnam. What a contrast between Thailand and Cambodia – Thailand prospering, and Cambodia struggling to recover from the atrocities of the recent past.

The 2 countries share an early past, when the Khmer Empire (Hindu and Buddhist, combined with traditional beliefs such as animism) was the dominant civilization in the area.  In 1238, the early Thai overthrew the Khmer leaders, using their prowess in growing rice to gain power. Over time, Thailand maintained its autonomy by trading out parcels of land to western countries which wanted to colonize the area (Cambodia and Laos went to the French while parts of Malay went to the Brits, etc.).

In more recent times, Thailand has continued to be independent (although it has aligned with various powers in the world wars). And though Cambodia is also independent today, its role in the 1970s left it scarred. In Cambodia’s earlier days (12th century), magnificent temple complexes such as Angor Wat were built, and a highly civilized society existed. But Cambodia had its share of trouble fighting off the Thais and Vietnamese, and spent some years as a French protectorate.

Communist Khmer Rouge rebels seized control of Cambodia and installed a regime led by Pol Pot in 1975. Almost half of Cambodia’s more accomplished citizens were massacred as Pol Pot tried to bring the country back to “Year Zero” as a completely agrarian society; all western civilization’s progress was subject to destruction as towns were emptied (city citizens were told to leave their homes in one day and relocate to the countryside), educators and the educated were killed, religion was banned, land was confiscated, money was forbidden, media were silenced, children were sent to work camps, etc.  Over the course of 4 years, it is estimated that 3 million Cambodians were killed by the Khmer Rouge (approximately 25% of the population). The Khmer Rouge finally signed a treaty (the Paris Peace Accords) to end their reign of terror in 1991.

Now Cambodia struggles to bring its 15 million people out of poverty, improve low literacy rates, stimulate tourism to its beaches, recover and redevelop large areas of rubble and trash, develop the oil and natural gas deposits under its waters, and increase trade through its port. Sanitation, health care and education systems are fairly primitive, and we saw several victims of land mines from the Vietnam War era begging in public markets and shrines. The future can’t get here fast enough.

Thailand (the “Land of Smiles”) is a constitutional monarchy with a population of 65 million who adore their King, a former Buddhist monk and a saxophone player of some repute – road signs and flags abound proclaiming long life to the King, who is in his 80s now. Thailand has lots of natural resources and exports (silk, rice, coconut, palm, tapioca, sea salt, fish, fruits). It’s a Buddhist stronghold (95% of the population and home to 300,000 monks), and has an established and thriving tourism base.

Thailand’s government that often winds up in the hands of the military when the farmers and small business owners (the “red shirts”) clash with the elites/monarchists/judiciary/military leadership (the “yellow shirts”).

Bangkok is called the Venice of the East due to its old system of canals (before cars and motors, trading was conducted via boats that roamed the canals selling their goods to those on the shores). Canal markets are still used in Thailand. Many temples and shrines can seen in the cities, mixing with old and new buildings and resorts.

Yes, the story of Anna and the King is true. It’s based on the writing of Anna, who was brought to Siam by the King to teach his children; he valued literacy and education, and appreciated western thought. But Anna’s book was deemed disrespectful, and is banned in Thailand.

So we see again how old and new mix – learning is valued, but so is respect of the past.

Wishing you all a very happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Best,

MA