The Monkeynut visits Southeast Asia

In February 2012, Toni went to Taiwan to study for a semester at National Chengchi University. (You can delight in her blog at When it came time for her to return to the US, we thought that it would be only prudent to fly out there to make sure that she found her way home without incident, so Louise and I hopped on a plane on June 23 in Austin and arrived in Taipei two days later. (Of course, one of those days was lost when we flew over the international date line; the actual flying time was a slightly more reasonable 25 hours.) Then, once in Southeast Asia, it seemed wrong to come home without having a little look around, particularly since we are celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary this year. It also seemed wrong for Madeleine not to have that opportunity, too, so she joined us a week later in Hanoi. Here are some pictures from our trip.

Our adventures began before we left Austin in the afternoon of Friday, June 22. Louise called a cab to take us to the airport and a little bit later a large van with yellow cab markings pulled up to the door. But this was no ordinary cab, as we discovered when we entered it. It called itself the Land Yacht and was lovingly customized by the driver/owner. Bolted to the floor by our feet was a monstrous woofer, various rack-mountable audio/visual electronics and a large computer. There were four large flat panel monitors facing us and a keyboard and mouse mounted to the dash. Although it only took us fifteen minutes to get to the airport, we watched a number of music videos, learned numerous interesting facts about famous local musicians and had our musical knowledge severely tested. Somehow, this kind of thing never happened to us in Larchmont.

Our next adventure came as we went through security. My carry-on was a day-pack that unfortunately contained various forgotten items of camping gear. Sure enough, the guy on the X-ray flagged a camping knife so I had to return to airline, check my backpack and back to security. On my return, a friendly TSA employee recognized me and said - I've seen you before! What did they send you back for? I replied nonchalantly that a nuclear weapon was found in my backpack and so I had to go back and check it. Her eyebrows rose and I realized that might have been an injudicious reply, but I was allowed to proceed.

After a layover in LA, we boarded our EVA 777 to Taipei. The flight went on for ever, although the plane was reasonably comfortable and the flight smooth. We got lots of sleep, watched a couple of movies and had our first taste of exotic food (Chinese porridge, with pork and fish floss). Finally, around 6 a.m. on Sunday morning we touched down in Taipei and took a taxi to our hotel.

It was too early to move into our room, but we checked in and dropped our bags while Toni came to meet us. After a joyful reunion, she suggested that we should stroll over to the Chiang Kai-Shek memorial which is close by. There is a large pagoda-style structure housing pictures of Chiang as a boy, as a soldier, as a president, meeting numerous US presidents and the like. Other items were on display, including his Cadillac and a full-size replica of his presidential office, complete with a wax replica of him. Outside, the grounds are beautifully maintained and feature other traditional-styled buildings serving as concert hall and theater.

National Chengchi University

After seeing the memorial, we took public transportation to the university. The subway is an extensive, attractive, efficient, modern network. The cars were immaculate; it was said that you could dine off the floor and I would have been happy to do so. Even the stations were clean and bright. There were stern posters (shown below) cautioning against sexual harassment, although the couple standing next to us seemed happy to be harassing each other.

When we arrived at the university, we went up to Toni's room and stood around while she cleaned up her room and got ready to vacate. The AC was off and the building was extremely stuffy. Her room-mate, a Taiwanese student, had already moved out. The beds, as seen below, come without any kind of mattress, although students are advised to purchase one on arrival, which Toni did. It was inexpensive, but looked like it would provide the general level of comfort of sleeping on a Kleenex.

Taipei seemed like a prosperous, bustling, modern city. Signs and advertizing are in a combination of English and Mandarin. There are some indications that you are in a foreign land - for example, there are more motor scooters than cars on the streets, and people do bow to each other. But, if you are looking for ox-carts and rickshaws rumbling down the street, you're going to be disappointed.

After checking out, Toni took us on a ride up the mountain behind the school on a gondola. Given our energy level after bouncing half-way around the planet, we were grateful to have a chance to sit and enjoy the view. At the top, we disembarked and relaxed some more at a tea house before going back down.

Sexual harrassment warning
Toni's dorm room The gondola
The university from the gondola Lunch at the top
Vegetation at the top Looking down through the floor of the gondola Riding the lion

The National Museum

We visited the national museum in Taipei, taking an English-language guided tour. Afterwards, as we were about to leave, it bucketed down rain for a while and we hunkered down in the gift shop. Note below the fine photo of one of the museum's prize possessions - the jade cabbage, which is entirely carved from a single piece of jade, using the imperfections of the jade to create cabbagey texture. And, if you come upon a really big bottle of beer, you can also use it to take the top off.

Afterwards, we went in search of the perfect desserts, two of which Toni located and swiftly ordered for us in flawless Mandarin. And they were mmm good!


To SunMoon Lake.

After a couple of days in Taipei, Toni the tourguide arranged for us to take a bus to SunMoon Lake, a large artificial lake in the interior nestled among the mountains, where she had booked us into a hotel overlooking the lake with stunning views. We made a later start than we had planned, had to run for the bus and then had to settle for a later one. The day we arrived was overcast and steamy - after we wandered around the village, it started to rain and then bucket down, so we ended up in front of the TV for the rest of the day.

The next day, however, was magnificent. We took wonderful misty pictures out of our hotel window across the lake. Although meals were included in the price of the hotel room, they had no kitchen, so they sent us to another establishment across the street. We walked into a shop selling large pieces of furniture that were carved from a single piece of wood and were quite mind-blowing.

After breakfast, we took a boat across the lake to another small village near which was a gondola up the mountain to an aboriginal village. Preparing to be educated, we took the gondola which dropped us off at the top of a hill. We then descended the slope, walking through exhibits about the life of the aboriginal people. Finally reaching the bottom, we found ourselves at a small theme park, featuring Space Mountain. (The Space Mountain, you ask? Well, perhaps not, but a reasonable facsimile thereof.)

Running for the bus to SunMoon Lake My new T-shirt, adorned with near-English Lunch at SunMoon Lake
More food. A cautionary message on the outside of our bathroom door at SunMoon Lake. Umbrellas on the dock
The dock. The gorgeous view of the lake from the window of our room. Primitive broom
The two of us on a lakeside stroll near the hotel. Some of the amazing furniture carved out of a single piece of wood.
Another amazing carving. Taking the taxi across the lake The gondola ride
Toni the three-armed aborigine. (Four if you count her rifle.) The place of skulls. Forest sprite playing the nose flute.
Space Mountain, for the fearless. (All three of us went.) Another ride which we didn't take. Mastodon keeping watch over Toni at the visitors' center.
More odds and ends while we waited for the bus. On the right is a miraculous impression, doubtless of divine origin, of the island of Formosa in the surface of the road.

Back to Taipei on the bus.

We spent a few days doing more sight-seeing in Taipei, including Taipei 101, a sky-scraper that for a while held the title of tallest building in the world. We also had some more wonderful things to eat, including a restaurant famous for its dumplings, which were amazing, and another place that had mango shaved ice, which was one of the finest things I have eaten in my life.

The relentless cuteness that was everywhere Cemetery, built into a hillside Taipei traffic
Yes, really that huge. Roaming the night market
Colorful veggies The sublime mango shaved ice Interesting menu items
Longshan temple
More Longshan temple roof Louise and Toni are astounded by the height of Taipei 101 Taipei 101 tower
The entrance to Taipei 101 High ceilings From coffee shop on the 35th floor

To Vietnam

On Friday, we set off for Vietnam. We got up at 6, finished packing, and the two lovely and helpful ladies at the desk got us a taxi to the airport. Some redistributing of our possessions between suitcases turned out to be required to avoid overweight luggage fees. I was detained as usual going through security - this time, they found a container of bug spray (or was it liquid explosives???) in my backpack, but after much discussion, it was finally given the OK.

After a three hour flight, we touched down at the Hanoi airport. We had decided to spend the first few days in Hanoi at the Hotel Metropole, which is where visiting royalty has always stayed in the past. (There are photos of HRH the Queen dining in one of the many fine dining rooms.) Following many recommendations on line that we avoid the taxis that would be waiting for us at the airport with tricked-out meters and connections with hotels that sound like the one you want to go to but aren't, we had requested that the hotel send a car for us. After standing around for a while, we called the hotel and they explained that they did not send the car since we failed to confirm. However, they have a rep from Metropole at the airport who swiftly arranged a dependable taxi to the hotel.

The Metropole was indeed very chic - can we park your polo pony, sir? However, surprisingly few of the beautifully attired employees could speak much English, or even French, the previous colonial language. It turns out that VietNam has only been vying for the tourist trade since the turn of the century. Before that, the schools did not emphasize foreign languages, and few tourists came to visit. Seeing how well the nearby countries were doing off the almighty tourist dollar, the powers that be decreed a sharp turn to the right and now the school-age population gets a large dose of English education. However, it will take quite a while before this filters down to the rest of the population.

Paddy fields on the way into Hanoi. Street wiring nightmares on the streets of Hanoi Why Spiderman hates Vietnam.
Motor scooters, the universal form of transportation. Luxury vehicle, seats four. Utility vehicle for transport of animals.
Banyan tree The Blue Butterfly, wide enough to admit only butterflies
Breakfast with So Cute With sword, broom and rifle, we fearlessly repel the capitalist lackeys Tourist shop lacquer goods
Opera house Traditional fruit seller Fine meal at Bobby Chinn's

Hanoi kids take us to the silk village

One wonderful idea to help tourists cope with VietNam is Hanoi Kids, which is an organization of college students who volunteer to show tourists around. On our first day in Hanoi, we had arranged for them to take us to the silk village, on the outskirts of Hanoi. At the appointed time, Ngoc and Duc arrived at the hotel and we got in a taxi and took a 40 minute ride to the village. We wandered around for a while, watching them weaving silk textiles, and then of course our guides were more than happy to help us buy all sorts of silk garments. They were delightful people and we all ended up in Hanoi at a little dive bar, drinking beer with a raw egg whipped up in it. Not bad.

Toni at the silk market Operating the loom Some looms could weave patterns that were controlled by punched cards
Ngoc and Duc inspect the silkworms A richly patterned cloth Relaxing afterwards

To Halong Bay

We piled into a bus for the four hour drive to Halong Bay. We made one stop, at a large factory/emporium for tourist goodies, but resisted the siren call of marble statues and wooden carvings. On arriving at the coast, we got in a small tender which took us out to the boat that was to be our home for the next couple of days. The boat held about 30 people, including some Aussies, some Vietnamese, Indonesians and us. Louise and I shared a decent-sized room and the girls were next door.

At the emporium
Who ordered the cheese and pepperoni? Nightfall
Our guide, Mai Cave Floating village
Water taxi to small island Geezer warning
Toni on the summit Group on the summit Hungry penguin
Problems with the bus

Back to Hanoi

Flying back on the Hello Kitty plane (in our dreams!)

Some quotes from Jane Kramer in the New Yorker, 7/23/2012.

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