Exploring Vietnam

Five Days in Vietnam

March 24, 2023

“Brits drive on the left side of the street; Americans on the right. Vietnamese drive on all sides—and the sidewalks.”  

Tour Guide

Vietnam is a study in barely controlled chaos. The comment from our tour guide about driving is essentially accurate. There are motorcycles everywhere and they drive where they find room. Traffic lights and cross walks are merely suggestions. So how do you cross the street? Basically you close your eyes, walk into the street, keep a steady pace and pray.  The motorcycle drivers are very adept; if you keep a steady pace they will steer around you. But it is a heart stopping experience. 

We spent 5 days on land in Vietnam; 2 days in Ha Long City, one day in Hue (Chan May) and 2 days in Saigon. Technically the proper name for Saigon is Ho Chi Minh City, but nobody except party apparatchiks uses that name. They just call it Saigon. 

Anyway we started in the North, docking in Ha Long Bay. The name refers to a descending dragon, which according to the local lore, refers to the dragons the gods sent as protectors of the people. Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO site, is huge encompassing about 600 square miles, and is spectacular to see. Located in the Gulf of Tonkin in the Van Don District, the Bay contains thousands of limestone karsts and islets.  

A black & white photo of Ha Long Bay on a cloudy day
Ha Long City Side Street
Photo of limestone rock formations jutting out of Ha Long Bay while various boats sail on the bay

Scientific research indicates that prehistoric humans lived there thousands of years ago. Three successive ancient cultures  were the Soi Nhu (18,000 – 7,000 BC), Cai Beo (7,000 – 5,000 BC) and Ha Long (5,000 – 3,500 BC). Today Ha Long Bay is a major tourist attraction.

The next place we stopped at was Chan May in central Vietnam. Chan May is located in the south-east corner of the Thua-Hue Province, with the Truong Mountains serving as a back drop. 

Chan May, Vietnam — March 20, 2023. Three people squeeze onto a motorcycle for a ride in a Chan May village.
Small boats tied up in a laggon in Chan May
Vietnamese Woman Walks Across Street in Chan May

While we were in Chan May we took a tour called “Through the Eyes of a Local” and visited a small village, a village market, a Buddhist Temple, a Pagoda and a fishing village that had a restaurant and bar on the beach. Needless to say we took full advantage of the bar. 

After Chan May we sailed to Saigon where we stayed for 2 days. While there we visited the Presidential Palace  (now a museum) the Viet Nam Post Office (truly an example of exceptional French architecture) the Minh Phuong lacquer factory, the Ben Than Market, Chinatown, a Chinese temple and a rather elaborate Saigon coffee shop.

One thing we noted was that as we went further South, things seemed to be less rigid. For instance, for the duration of the trip we were required to have stamped Vietnamese papers in our possession while on land. And as we got off the ship in Ha Long Bay and Hue, there were Vietnamese soldiers checking our papers.  In Saigon however, the soldiers and customs officers were nowhere to be seen. 

Photo of the iconic Presidential Palace in Saigon; it is now a Museum
Saigon, Vietnam — March 23, 2023. Photo of motorcyclists on a city street in Saigon, Vietnam.
March 23, 2023. A tourist walks past a Vietnamese woman wearing an iconic leaf hat on a Saigon side street.

Saigon was a lot more freewheeling than up North. The city os growing rapidly and lots of high rise apartment buildings are going up. For instance in 1975 the population was 2.5 million; now it’s about 9 million. So far Saigon, which also features lots of high end stores, seems to be thriving. But one thing stood out. Almost no matter where you looked, lots of trash was strewn about. The authorities claim that they are working on it. It’s worth keeping in mind that Singapore, now one of the world’s cleanest cities, used to have a similar problem. 


The Republic of Taiwan

March 17, 2023 (AKA Patrick’s Day)

We sailed into the port city of Keelung Taiwan on March 14 bypassing a scheduled port-of-call a day earlier because of bad weather. After Keelung we sailed into the port city of Kaohsiung.  Keelung, the second largest port in Taiwan, has a population of about 360,000; Kaohsiung with a population of 2.77 million is much larger and more modern.

The captain of the ship has told us that we are sailing in Chinese waters by permission. That might explain why our internet connection has once again become an on-again, off-again proposition. The Chinese government of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC),  an authoritarian surveillance state, is not exactly cooperative when it comes to providing access to information sources outside of its control. 

Be that as it may, Taiwan is a land of Temples. Lots of them. In Keelung we visited a giant Buddha and temple; in Kaohsiung we stopped in at the iconic Chi Ming Tang Temple; a Confucian temple and numerous Pavilions at Lotus Pond. 

It wasn’t all temples all the time though. For instance, we visited Yehliu Geopark near New Taipei City and saw some amazing rock formations created over the centuries by the ocean washing over the hoodoo stones there. Pagodas and Pavilions surrounded Lotus Pond—a man-made pond that we visited across the street from The Chi Ming Temple. 

All in all it was pretty interesting. That said, the architecture was pretty uneven. Some places were new and modern especially in Kaohsiung. In others, like the port city of Keelung, the architecture was unappealing, to say the least.

And now it’s off to Vietnam. First stop is scheduled for March 18 at Halong Bay.

Some photos are below.


Keelung Port
Chi Ming Tang Temple
Giant Buddha
Pavillion by Lotus Pond
Tourists on the Rocks

A Frenetic and Fun Day in Hong Kong

March 13, 2023

We are sailing toward Taiwan looking to dock in our second scheduled Taiwanese port because we missed the first one (Hualian) due to bad weather. Really bad. We sailed through the night through waves as high as 14 feet, so we got knocked about quite a bit. We’ll see what tomorrow brings. 

Approaching Hong Kong

We docked in Hong Kong this past Monday morning to spend about 8 or 9 hours touring around the city. Cranes are visible everywhere you look. No matter how you slice it,  there is a massive amount of construction going on. But the continuing prosperity of Hong Kong depends on the relationship between Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland. 

On June 20, 2020 the Chinese government bypassed the legislature in Hong Kong and imposed a national security law contravening its Treaty with the UK. The move significantly eroded Hong Kong citizens’ rights. Since then Beijing has cracked down on dissent and jailed opponents of the new regime. Whether Hong Kong can remain a banking and finance powerhouse in the face of this remains to be seen. 

Be that as it may, we were very busy in Hong Kong. Our visit included trips to the famous Tin Hau Temple dedicated to the Taoist goddess of the sea. While there, in the park outside, we saw You Tube videos being filmed featuring (mostly) young women dressed in traditional outfits representing various Chinese dynasties. Then we made our way to Hong Kong wet and dry markets.  (These were not at all like the wet markets in China that sell live animals.) 

Chinese Women in Traditional Outfits
Inside the Tin Hat Temple

After that we boarded a double decker tram and visited trading districts that maintained markets in Chinese herbal medicines, traditional wedding dresses, incense and all sorts of traditional Chinese products. Then we had Tea and snacks at a local cafe. 

Bargaining in the Market

We weren’t quite finished though. We followed up with a tour of Hong Kong at night which featured spectacular views of the city from the 100th floor of Hong Kong’s tallest building. Finally we headed off for cocktails and canapé’s at the Kerry Hotel while overlooking Victoria Harbor. 

Photo taken in the Sky 100 Observation Deck

And before I forget. Our guide, who is Chinese through and through, insisted (jokingly) that he is really Irish and that his name is Patrick, but his friends call him Paddy. The guy was a riot. 

Needless to say, a good time was had by all. 


A Few Days in the Philippines

March 10, 2023

Inmates put on a Show

We sailed into the Philippines on March 7, 2023 and then spent a few days touring around the country, traveling to 2 islands in the archipelago. The first was Palawan where among other things we visited a Philippine Penal Farm where minimum security prisoners put on a show for us. Kind of bizarre. Apparently it’s kind of an experimental facility where inmates are not behind bars, live with their families and serve minimal time. 

More conventionally we also visited both a WWII memorial, and the Immaculate Conception Church built in the early 1600s, making it one of the oldest churches in the Philippines.

Puerto Princessa, the Philippines–March 7, 2023. A wide angle shot looking up the exterior of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral.


A couple of days later we were in Manilla on the island of Luzon where we visited Fort Santiago, San Agustin Church and Rizal Park. It is here at Rizal Park where Filipinos commemorate the heroism of Jose Rizal a leader of the drive for independence from Spain. The Spanish colonial authorities executed him by firing squad on Dec 30, 1896, at the age of 30. 

Photo of a statue of Jose Rizal before a Spanish firing squad.

The Spanish colonial authorities refused Rizal’s request to face the firing squad and so they shot him in the back because they regarded him as a traitor. Nevertheless, the Philippines gained its independence from Spain 2 years later in 1898. Filipinos regard Jose Rizal as a national hero and have a memorial in the park (named after him) tracing the day of his execution. 

Some more photos are below.

A wide angle shot of the Manilla skyline
Manila, Philippines–March 9, 2023. A wide angle photo that shows a lake in historic Fort Santiago with the city on the background.
A photo taken inside the walls of the historic Fort Santiago
Manilla, Philippines–March 9, 2023. A vertical shot taken in a corridor of San Agustin Church.


Brunei Darussalam

March 8, 2023

We sailed into what is officially known as Brunei Darussalam on March 5.  Brunei is one of the smallest and statistically richest countries in the world. It has only about 450,000 residents with an estimated per capita GDP of about $75,000 for 2022. For rough comparison purposes, U.S. per capita GDP for 2022 was about $77,000, which is about 5 times the world average. 

But Brunei’s numbers have to be taken with a large grain of salt. One of the obvious reasons for that very high per capita GDP is oil and gas, the prices of which rose considerably over the last few years. Another is that Brunei is an absolute monarchy. All the revenues from oil and gas flow through the Sultan of Brunei, making him one of the richest men in the world. But that doesn’t necessarily make Brunei a wealthy society. 

We did see impressive architecture, especially of Mosques and huge government buildings—but we also visited the Kampong Ayer Water Village—and believe me, you wouldn’t want to live there. 

Photo of a Mosque taken in Brunei
Photo of a Water Village outside Bandar Seria Bagawan, Brunie’s capital city

The governance of Brunei is a strange combination of the traditional British common law and a form of sharia law. Our guide pointed out that they have moderated sharia law. For instance they don’t cut off thieves’ hands anymore; a less-than-convincing example of moderation. Another assertion was that sharia law was supposed to protect women in Brunei. I seriously doubt that anyone on the tour bought that.  

We visited what was essentially the Royal Museum (an ode to the Sultan)  where we had to proceed without shoes so as not to ruin the carpets, or so we were told. There we got to view the Sultan’s chariots and a history of the Sultan’s family. The guide also noted that he was happy to answer any of our questions, but to please hold off until we were in the bus so he wasn’t overheard, just in case he said something the authorities were likely to frown on. 

So there you have it. An absolute monarchy that is a one man show, closely tied to the price of fossil fuels, making the country vulnerable to a downturn in markets for oil and gas. And of course the government provides lots of free services. Except that the price of “free” services is a denial of individual liberty. That is worth thinking about.


Photo of Jame-Asr-Hasannil-Bolkiah Mosque taken in Brunei
Photo of Kampong Ayer Water Village with bridge in background

A Few Days in Indonesia

Bali and Surabaya

March 3, 2023

We just spent several days in Indonesia on Bali and Java islands.  On Bali Island, among other things we visited  Denpasar, the capital city of the region. We stopped into  Tohpati Village a section of the city; had a coffee break by a rice paddy, and visited the Royal Temple.  

We should mention that there are coffee shops everywhere, presumably because like just about every other country we have visited, they have the “best coffee in the world”. Actually, come to think of it, the coffee is very good.

On Java we visited Surabaya, the capital city of East Java. We went to a small Village, and spent some time at a park that celebrates Indonesian independence. We also spent some time at the Malapahit Hotel, a colonial era luxury establishment designed by the architect R.A.J. Sidwell who designed Raffles in Singapore. And guess what? It looks just like Raffles. 

It is one thing to read about the many islands, tribes, ethnicities and religions in Indonesia, and quite another thing to see this in action.   The cities are crowded, colorful and full of sights, sounds and smells (many from local spices and foods).  

In a way, it is exotic and interesting and can easily become sensory overload.   Everywhere people smile when we engage, thank us for visiting and bow slightly as they say thank you.   

Outside of the cities, there are lush tropical forests and pristine beaches.   It is a land of many contrasts.  

We have had a wide range of experiences during our  days here, visiting old cultural villages and historical sites, stopping along the way for tea, coffee and delicious snacks, and generally learning about the history and culture of Indonesia.   We have heard and seen several dances and music performances (from traditional chants to pop rock songs, all of which were very good), as well as calls to prayer. The country is almost all Muslim, with the island of Bali being the exception where some 90% of the population is Hindu.     

All in all, an incredible experience.   And now we are sailing for Brunei where we are scheduled to dock on March 5. A few photos from our time in Indonesia are posted below.


A photo taken on the grounds of the Royal Temple (the Tamun Ayun Temple)
A Family Prays in the Inner Sanctum
Photo of coconute trees and a Rice Paddy in Bali Indonesia.
Surabaya, Indonesia–March 2, 2023. A woman poses for a photo in Surabaya
Surabaya, Indonesia–Mar 2, 2023. A young dancer in Kampoeng Lawas Mespati Village
Surabaya, Indonesia–March 2, 2023. A monument designed to celebrate Indonesian Independence
Woman Working in Batik Factory

Into the Wilds of the Northern Territory

February 26, 2023

Darwin Australia

Darwin, with a population of about 150,000, is the capital city of the Northern Territory in Australia. The city houses the majority of the residents of the Territory—a territory that is Australia’s version of the Wild West. It has a reputation as a hard drinking party town, although that has toned down a bit over the years.

Darwin is the smallest and most northerly of Australia’s capital cities. It is also younger than average—33 v 37 for the rest of Australia—due in part to the large number of military personnel stationed there because of the area’s strategic importance. 

As a result of its proximity to South East Asia, the city is a key link to Indonesia and East Timor. The climate is tropical. There are two seasons—the wet season and the dry season. We are in the wet season at the moment. The two main industries of Darwin are mining and tourism. 

About 38% of the population was born overseas. About 70% of the population identifies their ancestors as either English or Australian. Just under 9% of the population is indigenous, which essentially means aboriginal. 58% of the population speaks English at home. 

While berthed at Darwin, we took a tour boat on the Adelaide River, on the lookout for crocodiles. The Adelaide River is home to a large population of these creatures. It wasn’t hard to find them since the boat crew lured them with buffalo meat. Crocodiles have hardly evolved over thousands of years; they still look like creatures out of a Jurassic Park movie. Crocodiles are not exactly Benjamin Spock trained parents. They mate; the female lays her eggs and takes off, looking for a new boyfriend. The male stays with the offspring for about 6 to 12 months and then heads off. The young crocs are then on their own. Many of the young are eaten by other creatures, sometimes by their siblings or parents.

Crocodiles are very aggressive; the males are particularly territorial. The larger crocs (we saw one that was 16 feet long) guard their territory until the younger ones are large and agile enough to attack them. Which they then proceed to do. Apparently none, or at least very few, have BFFs.

The crocs that we saw were fed buffalo meat by the boat’s crew so the passengers could get a look at them in action. It was a good reminder of why it is important to keep arms and legs inside the boat. A few photos from the boat trip are below. 


A salt water crocodile sticks his head up from the Adelaide River in search of food.
Photo of Kyte Birds of prey on the banks of the Adelaide River in the Northern Territory
A crocodile comes up from the depths of the Adelaide River in search of food.

Australia, Here We Come (Again)

Cairns, Australia

February 20, 2023

Finally we arrived in Australia. Cairns to be exact. We were supposed to go on an overland trip to the Outback and Ayers Rock, but that didn’t pan put so we booked some tours for the ports we would be visiting, starting with Cairns. 

We decided to go on a tour of the Kuranda Rainforest. We started by taking a train ride through the rainforest in the approximately 100 year old restored train line now known as the tourist friendly Kuranda Scenic Railway.  We were treated to spectacular views of the rain forest with its waterfalls, deep ravines and mountains. Occasionally we could see out to the coast from the mountains.

Next we went for a ride in amphibious vehicles which were originally designed for use in WWII. These vehicles, now manufactured fro civilian use, are known as “Army Ducks”. The Army Ducks were (and are) made exclusively by women. We drove—actually we were driven—through a portion of the rain forest, which included a brief drive in a shallow lake.  We successfully avoided eating the extremely poisonous berries and other plants that inhabit the rain forest; we also avoided the venomous snakes and Cassowaries who live there. 

Cassowaries are about the size of ostriches, have razor sharp toe nails and are quite capable of slicing up and killing adversaries with their feet. Best viewed in zoos or from a distance. 

After that adventure we visited a Rainforest Preservation Zoo with the obligatory kangaroos, some crocodiles, a Cassowary and of course, a Tasmanian Devil. After that it was back to the ship. 

The next scheduled stop was Cooktown, but that was cancelled due to the weather. Apparently it would have been too dangerous to get the tender ships ashore. So we are off to Darwin, named after Charles Darwin, where we should arrive in a few days. 

In the meantime, a few photos from out rainforest travels are below. 


Cairns, Australia–Feb 20, 2023. Wide angle photo of the Freshwater train station where we caught the Kuranda Express.
Photo of a rain forest waterfall taken in Barron Gorge National Park in Northern Australia
Barron Gorge National Park, Australia — February 20, 2023. Photo of tourists riding in an Army Duck amphibious vehicle.
Barron Gorge National Park, Australia — February 20, 2023. A photo of the 100 year old Kuranda Scenic Railway Train in Barron Gorge National Park.

Papua New Guinea: The Land That Time Forgot

February 18, 2023.

When we arrived at Papua New Guinea (PNG) the morning of February 18, 2023 we went (briefly) through the town of Alotau. The town has a population of about 30,000 (according to our tour guide) and it seemed like everybody was in the town center, largely because it was Saturday and time to do the weekly shopping etc.

Population estimates have to be taken with a very large grain of salt. The last official census estimate, taken in 2011, put the population of PNG at a little over 7 million. By 2020 population was estimated to be around 9 million. But…as recently as December of 2022 a new estimate put the population at over 17 million—about double to estimate from 2 years ago. It’s probably safe to say that they have no idea what the actual population count really is.

PNG was largely ignored by European colonialists in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was WWII that prompted the Americans and Australians to build military bases on PNG to fight against Imperial Japan. Up until that point PNG was isolated from the rest of the world for over a hundred years. Most of the natives of Papua New Guinea had probably never seen a white man, much less a car or the airplanes that were all-of-a-sudden swooping down on them. 

Papua New Guinea is often described as linguistically diverse. That’s an understatement if there ever was one. There are 839 known languages spoken here. Language diversity probably stems from the lack of urbanization. The vast majority of the population—about 85%–lives in rural areas. And by rural I mean traditional village communities. 

PNG is officially listed by the IMF as a developing country, meaning it’s poor. Very poor. Something like 85% of the population earns its livelihood from Agriculture, which essentially means subsistence farming and some cash crops. Agriculture accounts for 30% of GDP. To put this in context, Papua New Guinea per capita GDP in 2019 was about $3,800; US per capita GDP for 2019 was about $65,000, about 17 times higher. 

Anyway, we visited a traditional village community in the jungle. A prominent fixture in the village was a Catholic missionary school. (About 95% of the population consider themselves to be Christian). 

We enjoyed watching the villagers, mostly young people, perform some traditional dances while wearing native dress. They also displayed various wares for sale. Some photos from our visit are below. 


Alotao, Papua New Guinea–Frbruary 18, 2023. Telephoto image of a greeting party in native dress of the dock in Alotau, Papua New Guinea
A wide angle photo of a village on Papua New Guinea near Alotau.
A wide angle photo taken of a village school in Papua New Guinea
Alotao, Papua New Guinea–Frbruary 18, 2023. Telephoto image of young warriors and thier leader in a village outside Alotau, Papua New Guinea