Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Easter near Rishikesh

The Beatles went there for spiritual enlightenment... why not the Sayer family? Rishikesh is famous for Hindu Sadus wearing saffron colored robes and its many ghats and temples lining the edge of the holy river Ganga.
The town's narrow alleys are full of the smells of incense and cow manure.
There are crowds of pilgrims from all corners of India. Scores of earthy, western travelers who can be seen toting bpa-free water bottles and expensive yoga mats while longing for inner peace and the discovery of a cheap, organic veg meal.
This part of the Ganga (Ganges) river passes through the state of Uttarakhand.
The river descends through the lower foothills of the Himalayas making the area famous for whitewater rafting and trekking. We traveled with another family by air-conditioned train to the city of Haridwar - the "gate of Heaven." From Haridwar we went on by car through Rishikesh and up into the Ganga River valley northeast for three days of rafting, kayaking and camping. Our outfitters provided all of the equipment, meals and local transportation for this weekend. Over two days we traveled a total of over 30 km on the Ganga River by raft - where the largest rapid (at this time of year) was rated a 3+ on the scale of difficulty. The company was pretty good - using kayak safety spotters and providing a guide in each of the nine boats in our group. For safety, the children had to get out of the raft twice to avoid the worst sections of rapids. We all enjoyed the sometimes wild ride and jumped in the water between rapids to cool down in the river's icy, glacial waters.
Easter morning was celebrated with the kids - Audrey, Kunchen, Evan and Siddhi, searching for chocolate eggs amongst the rocks in our riverside camp. We rafted and swam during three hot sunny days. We ate traditional Indian dishes and freshly made Roti under a large tent. And for two cool, starlit evenings we roasted marshmellows and drank wine and cocoa by the bonfire.
It worked for us... just north of the tangled alleyways and hubub of Rishikesh, we found a touch of inner peace and the joy of Easter while keeping our toes dipped into the holy mountain waters of the Ganga.

Monday, April 18, 2011


It was the kids' Spring Break from school so we decided to escape India for the week and explore a new place. Vietnam had been on our list of 'must do' trips after so many positive reports from friends. Geographically, it is a very long country, so we decided to just head to the northern part via Hanoi. We pulled Audrey and Evan out of school for a couple of days to make the event a full 12 day journey. Our adventures started almost immediately. Our carrier, AirAsia missed our connection in Bangkok (the plane departed Delhi 1 hour late) so we wound up with a "bonus day" overnight in that lovely city. We had to reschedule for the next morning's flight to Hanoi. It worked out fine, since we already knew of a hotel (Lamphu Tree) and had a destination in mind to fill our unexpected day.

We took 2 water taxis from our hotel to Wat Arun a large Buddhist Temple complex we didn't have time to see on our 2010 visit to Thailand. Of course we made the most of out 24 hours and sampled grilled meats, local foods and re-explored some of Bangkok's many outdoor markets...

The adventure continued when we arrived in Hanoi. I had my visa on arrival paperwork, but managed to forget our passport-sized photos - one of the requirements for American entry into Vietnam. The line was long and the green-uniformed Vietnamese looked decidedly Stalinesque. The uniformed woman who listened to our plight just smiled and took us to the front of the line. She grabbed a digital camera and took the photos right there in the immigration terminal in front of a crowd of 3o other international visitors. Thankfully, forgetting our passport photos only cost an extra US$2 and got us to the front of a long line.

Our time in Hanoi was cut a little short due to the connection mishap, but we still managed to tuck in a little sightseeing.

The highlights included the famous water puppet theater near Hoan Kiem Lake, and the ancient (1075 AD) cloister of buildings now called the Temple of Literature. This was Vietnam's first University.

From Hanoi we traveled 14 hours south by sleeper train through the old 'DMZ' to Danang and out farther post south on this trip, the sea-side town of Hoi An. We had our own cabin and 4 berths. It was clean and the trip was decidedly smoother than our similar experiences on Indian and Sri Lankan trains.

Hoi An old city has become an UNESCO World Heritage site. There are quite a few tourist (mainly French, Australians and Americans) here. The town is being very developed for tourism, but is still a perfect place to relax, have a beer (bia), a bowl of pho (traditional noodle soup) or baguette sandwich.

The beach is only 5km away - a 15 minute bike ride. We rented bicycles on 3 of our six days and spent late afternoons in the sand and waves. The kids and I made new sand-structures each day and jumped in the big waves of the So. China Sea. It's a long stretch of beautiful beach, extending from Hoi An north to DaNang. This 20km stretch includes the famous China Beach.

One of my favorite activities was the cooking class we took. We learned how to make 3 traditional dishes: Pho Ga, (chicken Noodle Soup), Cau Lao (a local Hoi an Specialty - pork and noodles) and fresh spring rolls. All a relatively quick and easy to make and very healthy!

We took a day trip by bus and boat to the Ancient Champ (4th Century Hindu) religious center of My Son. The place was somehow familiar to us, since these temples refect the style and beliefs of their builders from South India. Ganesh and Shiva are intermixed with images of Yin and Yang (Linga and Joli) symbols of masculine and feminine. Our Vietnamese guide made it clear that much of the site, including a massive 24 meter tall temple (only the base remains) were destroyed by B-52s in the Tet Offensive of 1968/69. He noted that the Viet Cong unfortunately used the isolated My Son Valley as a refuge from American forces. It was part of a network of trails used to resupply NVA soldiers during that war.

The next leg of the trip took us on a 3 hour bus-ride to the Ancient Imperial capital of Hue. Unfortunately, much of this city was destroyed during 2 twentieth century wars - in 1947 and in 1968, but enough remains to celebrate its unique history. We visited the great walled portion of the city that was once the "Forbidden City" of Hue. Similar in many ways to it's counterpart in, Beijing, this Forbidden City was home to the last of the Vietnamese Imperial Dynasties: the Nguyens.

After just one night and a quick tour of Hue we traveled back north to Hanoi and our final destination - the unique and very beautiful, Halong Bay. We spend parts of 2 days and one night exploring some of the channels and 2,000 limestone islands that make up the bay. Our hosts on the boat were kind, despite having left our overnight bag on the curb at the harbor (We managed to recover they bag after paying a small fee to the street vendors for finding it). We got to explore the large Sung Sot Cave, observed some of the many unusual rock formations and saw several "floating villages" made from anchored houseboats. The largest of these has a year-round population of 200 inhabitants and includes a floating bank!

We loved our experiences in Vietnam - the people, the beauty, food and culture. We hope to return again sometime soon to explore the southern part of this lovely country. Maybe even add a side adventure to nearby Cambodia and Angkor Wat!