Bangkok Thailand

Bangkok Thailand – the name alone evokes images of a mysterious oriental cityscape of busy streets, sidewalk vendors, bustling markets, exotic entertainments, and striking Buddhist architecture. As the capital of modern Thailand and the center of its burgeoning economy Bangkok is a multifaceted city filled with myriad delights and destinations. Known as the “Venice of the East” because of its many canals and water-bourn culture (the word Bangkok means “water-flower village”), Thais themselves refer to the city as Krung Thep, City of Angels.

Wat Phra Kheo buildings

Wat Phra Kheo buildings

Bangkok’s history is relatively brief. Following the fall of Ayuthaya (Siam’s historic capital and a World Heritage site - an easy daytrip from Bangkok) to the Burmese in the late 18th century, Siamese society was fractured and prostrate. A hero emerged, Taksin, who rallied and united the Siamese people and established a new capital at Thonburi on the Chao Phraya River. The next king, Chao Phraya Chakri (Rama I, founder of the current dynasty) moved the capital across the river and founded Bangkok in 1782. Bangkok has been Siam/Thailand’s capital and primary city ever since. Rama undertook an ambitious building program including the Grand Palace complex and Wat Phra Kaew in an attempt to recapture the lost glory of Ayuthaya. Other important Wats and palaces followed in successive decades.
From a western perspective, Bangkok burst into the public consciousness during the Vietnam War as American GIs flocked here on leave. The Southeast Asian economic boom of the 1980s and ‘90s fueled the explosive expansion of Bangkok into the teeming metropolis of 10 million it is today.
Bangkok’s top sights are clearly the Grand Palace complex and Wat Pho. The highlight of a Grand Palace visit is Wat Phra Kaew, home of the Emerald Buddha. The complex is a jaw-dropping collection of spectacular buildings, monuments, and statues. The entrance is guarded by two fantastic yaksha, or mythical giants. The compound walls are lined with beautifully restored murals of the Ramakian (Thai version of the Ramayana). The grounds are punctuated by multiple stupas, with their dramatically and diversely decorated prangs (spires). Many stupas are ringed by elaborate mythical warriors. The bots (temples buildings) are decorated by colored tiles and tiny mirrors – quite dazzling. Brightly gilded mythical statues add to the fantastical, mystical ambiance.

Phra Kheo garudas

Phra Kheo garudas

Next door Wat Pho is Bangkok’s oldest temple. Pho is another complex of beautiful bots and stupas (more than 100) and home to Thailand’s largest reclining Buddha. The striking, 150 foot long, gilded gold statue barely fits in its bot. The soles of the feet are particularly interesting, displaying 108 auspicious laksana (characteristics of the Buddha) in mother of pearl. Thailand’s largest collection of Buddha images (almost 400) is also housed here. Lastly, Wat Pho is the national center for traditional Thai medicine, including Thai massage. There is no better place in the country for this obligatory experience. For about $10, one can experience 90 minutes of therapeutic, relaxing heaven.

Wat Pho reclining Buddha

Wat Pho reclining Buddha

Bangkok’s third signature sight is Wat Arun – the Temple of the Dawn. Its 266 foot Khmer-style prang dominates the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River. Wat Arun was founded by Taksin but the tower itself was built by Ramas II and III in the early 19th century. One of Arun’s unique and pleasing features is its creative design and decoration. The materials used are a lesson in early Asian recycling. The entire stupa is decorated with broken Chinese porcelain. Eighteenth century Chinese trading ships used tons of broken porcelain as ballast, providing inexpensive, readily available materials.

Wat Arun

Wat Arun

Imprint Tours recently completed another successful tour of Thailand, the jewel of Southeast Asia - our favorite tour. We have made the decision to repeat both Vietnam and Thailand again in February 2020. If you’d like more information, here are the links to the respective tour pages.
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Imprint Tours' Vietnam - Saigon

The final stop on Imprint’s Vietnam Tour was Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, as it is officially known today.  The locals still refer to it as Saigon and that seems appropriate.  I must admit, Saigon was not my favorite stop.  It is a big, busy, bustling city.  It is obviously the beating economic heart of modern, flourishing Vietnam, so it is an important stop.  But personally, I liked the ambiance of Hanoi and Hoi An much more.  However, Saigon has some worthwhile sights and is an important springboard for destinations in the south of the country.  After a morning flight from Hoi An we had a tour of the city which included some of its famed colonial architecture.   We saw their Notre Dame, Hotel de Ville, and the neo-classical Post Office building.  Perhaps all my travels in Europe for Rick Steves has jaded me against European Colonial architecture.  They were beautiful buildings all, but failed to excite my travel imagination.

           More enjoyable for me was the War Remembrance Museum.  The courtyard is filled with American planes, helicopters, jets, tanks, cannons, armored vehicles, and all manner of war machines.  It was fun having daughter Maia to pose in front of the captured armaments.  Like the Hanoi Hilton, this was an effective propaganda institution, characterizing the US as evil capitalist aggressors.  I did not find it offensive, merely instructive.

           The inside of the museum was dedicated to photos, explanatory panels, maps, and global press excerpts used to tell the story of American aggression, though there were plenty of bombs, missiles, ammunition, and small weaponry to go around.  Most of the ground floor was devoted to the American anti-war movement of the 1960s.  Images of violence on American campuses and stories of prominent objectors line the walls.  The experience prompted many questions from Maia and I realized the Vietnam War was a part of our history we had never discussed.  Bringing that to light and prompting discussion is another of the hidden values of travel.  I found great delight in taking her around to show her famous images I had grown up with.  Among them:  the South Vietnamese officer executing a Vietcong (pistol to temple); the village girl running naked after her clothing had been burned off by American napalm; pictures of Sgt Calley, the self-immolation of a Vietnamese monk, a US helicopter being pushed off a Saigon building at the end of the war, and many more.  Maia wore down quickly, but I was energized by the walk down memory lane, albeit, a sad and unfortunate lane to be sure.


           Any sting that might have been felt from the jingoistic perspective of the museum was assuaged by the kindness and hospitality of every Vietnamese person to which we’d been exposed on the trip.  We were consistently met with kindness, openness, and inclusion.  Quite assuredly, many in our group came with certain trepidations about this tour.  The Vietnam War is a deep scar on our cultural psyche.  But this is the power of travel: to change perspectives and broaden our vision.  I start every tour with a Marcel Proust quote:  “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”  That has never been more true than in Vietnam.  On the last night, when we were sharing highlights, Maia said it best.  She said, “What I learned on this tour is that Vietnam is more than just a war.”

Imprint Tours' Vietnam - Mekong and Cu Chi

At the end of our Vietnam tour we had two of the best experiences of the trip.  We had a Homestay visit in the Mekong Delta and visited the wartime Cu Chi tunnels outside of Saigon.  Both were interesting and served to connect us to the Vietnamese culture – always a goal on an Imprint tour.

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On our homestay visit we had a great local guide named Thu who exposed us to the waterborne culture of the great Mekong Delta region.  The mouth of Southeast Asia’s mightiest river is the agricultural heart of Vietnam and a place where traditional culture still holds sway.  Our bus dropped us off in the bustling port town of Cai Be.  We boarded our own boat and Thu started teaching us about life on the water.  We saw whole families living on the junks and plying their trade.  We stopped for a visit of a fish sauce factory.  Fish sauce is sort of the national “condiment” of Southeast Asia.  The fermented, salty sauce is used in virtually every local dish.  The process was worthy of note and educational, but I have to admit, not particularly pleasant for the olfactory nerves.  Later we visited a craft village that produces coconut candy and, for the adventurous among us, an opportunity to sample snake wine.  The Vietnamese make a spirit from the whole body of snakes, preferably venomous ones, in rice wine or grain spirits – with the whole snake still in the bottle.  The snake venom is dissolved into the liquor, giving it its medicinal properties.  It is widely believed to be an aid to health and virility – yum!

Then it was on into the archipelago of islands in the braided channels of the mighty Mekong.  Once having left Cai Be the scenery became lush and impressive, with jungle vegetation growing down to the riverbank.  Only the occasional farm showed that human habitation even exists here.  After gaining some miles upstream we were transferred to smaller, human-powered sampans.  The smaller, shallow draft boats allowed us to explore the smaller channels and inner waterways.  This was the best part of the experience in my mind.  We were given Chinese coolie hats for sun protection.  Our rowers were engaging and happy, though they spoke no English.  And we passed many other sampans laden with fruits, other produce, grains, and almost any agricultural products one can imagine.

Eventually we transferred back to our large boat and motored to our accommodation.  Our homestay was a large wooden building with a great dinning hall, rustic but comfortable sleeping quarters (raised beds, mosquito nets, and ensuite bathrooms) and, best of all, a lovely veranda around three sides of the building.  It was a lovely place for a happy hour and the cold beer was heavenly.  Some of the group dozed in the many hammocks available.  For dinner, we all had the opportunity to go into the kitchen and help prepare our dinner.  It was not a cooking class, but rather more like a cooperative venture.  It was a great chance to rub elbows with our local hosts.  After dinner we were surprised with a presentation of local music and drama – a private concert just for us.

The next day, before leaving the Delta, we visited the huge, bustling riverside market of Cai Be.  We saw explosions of color – every tropical flower and fruit imaginable.  All being brought in by barge, sampan, and boat.  On the way back to Saigon, we had a bonus stop at the vibrant and colorful Cao Dai temple. Indigenous to Vietnam, Caodaism is a unique fusion of Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and Confucianism.  The interior is an eruption of multichromatic visual drama.  I won’t try to describe it, when a picture is worth . . .

Our other “experience” of southern Vietnam was the Cu Chi Tunnels.  If there were ever an ideal symbol of Vietnamese tenacity, resiliency, and resourcefulness, this vast system of tunnels is it.  Some of the fiercest fighting of the war took place in this region.  The Viet Cong, mere miles from the southern stronghold and capital of Saigon, literally went underground to survive and to maintain control of the area.  The system, which is often several layers deep, spread out like a subterranean spider’s web of more than 150 miles of tunnels.  The system included hundreds of trap doors and booby traps and consisted of living facilities, storage, weapons storage and manufacturing, hospitals, kitchens, and command centers.  The VC used the tunnel system to maintain communications and mount surprise attacks inside US controlled lines.  Eventually, the US resorted to saturation bombing which devastated the area.  Even so, they were never able to dislodge the combatants.  Cu Chi is now a very popular destination for the Vietnamese themselves and a favorite of school groups.

Today a small section is open to the public.  The tunnels have been enlarged so visitors don’t get the full claustrophobic effect of life underground – but it is bad enough even so.  The visit begins with a propaganda film and then one is escorted by local guides in camouflage fatigues through short sections of the tunnels.  There are pictures and examples of booby traps and lots of images of life underground.  The best part is the few minutes one is allowed to explore independently.  It is a meaningful experience and certainly causes reflection.

Between the rural, traditional experience of the Mekong Delta, the wartime connection at the Cu Chi tunnels , and rounded with the unique religious encounter of the Cao Dai temple we truly felt like we had “Traveled with Intent” in southern Vietnam.


Imprint Tours' Vietnam - Hoi An

I should begin with the fact that Hoi An was my favorite stop on the initial Imprint Vibrant Vietnam tour back in 2015.  Halong Bay was more spectacular, but Hoi An has that great cultural vibe I’m come to love in my travels.  Its hard to define and articulate, but its easy to identify when you experience it.  For me, that makes Hoi An Vietnam’s unofficial cultural capital.  From my pre-tour research it was obvious there would be lots to see and do in Hoi An, so the tour tarried for 3 nights.

           Hoi An’s historic core is very charming.  As a long time trading city the architecture is of eclectic origins.  There are Chinese, Japanese, Cham, and even European-style buildings, giving the town an international feel.

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           Then there is the shopping.  Anyone who knows me knows I am not a shopper.  But Hoi An is the tailoring capital of the country and getting quality clothes custom tailored is easy and inexpensive.  I succumbed to the lure and got a bunch of new travel clothes made.  It was equally fun to shop with my daughter Maia for dresses, shoes, and a jacket.  All were custom fitted, great values, and will be unique back in Seattle circles – very important for a 16-year old.

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           Much like Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, Hoi An is a center of cooking schools.  There are dozens to choose from.  Most offer pickup from your hotel, a market tour which includes selecting and purchasing your ingredients, hands on training in preparation of several local dishes, instruction in decorative vegetable or fruit carving, and then the enjoyment of consuming your creations for lunch or dinner.  I organized a class for those tour members who were interested and they reported a genuinely wonderful experience.  Their “class” uniquely included a bike ride through a couple villages to the local market.  The instruction was top rate, the English good, and the experience fantastic.


           It would be hard to say that any one town has the best food in Vietnam because the food was universally fresh, creative, unique, and delicious.  But it did seem like Hoi An has an embarrassment of culinary riches.  We had two excellent organized meals and our free time choices were also successful.  But the edible highlight was the great Banh Mi sandwich shop our Vietnamese guide Bon took our group to.  Famous all over Vietnam, our travelers confirmed the reputation was well earned and in no danger of falling off any time soon.  The sandwiches were simple (no choices), fresh (including the bread), cheap, and immense!  Best value meal on the tour!

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           We made one short but worthwhile excursion from Hoi An.  We journeyed to the nearby ruins of My Son, one-time capital of the Cham civilization.  While not the most spectacular ruins in Southeast Asia, the Cham remains were nonetheless worthwhile.  An hour’s drive brought us to an impressive bridge where our bus left us and we proceeded on foot.  The Champa kings built temples, tombs, and monuments here from the 4th to 18th century.  The structures that remain are intricately carved from a red sandstone.  I was put in mind of Banteay Srie at Angkor.  Like there, the details are important.  The buildings are covered with carvings of gods, priests, sacred animals, and mythical battles.  We were able to enter several buildings and photograph to our heart’s content.  The humid, tropical air of central Vietnam softened the light for photographs even at mid-morning.  One last bonus experience awaited us when we began our return to the bus.  Under a pavilion, ancient Cham music and dance are performed.   It was quite good.  Usually performances that are provided free tend to be cheesy and touristy.  But I found this performance quite compelling.  We saw several dances and heard at least 3 styles of music.  One performer, playing a rudimentary clarinet-type of horn impressed us all by playing a single note for several minutes without interruption.  Obviously he had perfected a technique of breathing in and blowing out at the same time, allowing him to hold the single note an impossibly long time.  After the performance we boarded our bus and returned to more relaxing in Hoi An.

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           One last indulgence that Hoi An provides is massage.  I don’t think the massage is special or unique, but it was readily available and inexpensive.  All in all, tied off with the ribbon of a beautiful hotel with a relaxing swimming pool area, our 3 days in Hoi An were well spent.

Imprint Tours has a group visiting Vietnam right now with colleagues Sarah Murdoch and Trish Feaster.  Follow their adventures on FB, Twitter, and/or Instagram:  thetravelphile and adventureswithsarahm

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Imprint Tours' Vietnam - Hue

           Halfway through our Vietnam tour we were halfway down the country in the charming town of Hue.  After Hanoi and the north we jumped aboard an overnight train and chugged south through the Vietnamese night.  The train was quite comfortable, more so than European couchettes I thought.  After breakfast and showers we continued south by bus.  We made one foray enroute, stopping to see another of Vietnam’s many imposing caves – Phong Nha.  I have been in many caves in my life, including the one on Halong Bay.  Phong Nha, which means “Cave of Teeth”, is easily one of the most remarkable.  What makes it unique is that you enter via boat on the river that flows from the cave mouth.  Once inside the boatman shuts off the engine and you glide in silence in a surreal subterranean world.  The combination of water and limestone make for eerie echoes and many of the most impressive formations are illuminated.  After our drifting tour of 20-30 minutes we disembarked our boats and climbed through several caverns, emerging high above the river and entrance for fine views and a picturesque temple.

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           After another amazing lunch, we were back on the road and heading south with quick photo stops at Cloudy Pass and famous China Beach.  In the late afternoon we arrived in Hue, the 19th century capital of the Nguyen dynasty.  The big sight in Hue is the great citadel, Kinh Thanh.  Equal parts military fortress, royal residence, and religious compound, the citadel is well worth a couple hours of exploration.  There are moats and cannons to photograph and bastion walls and towers to climb.  The Imperial Enclosure contains the palatial emperor’s residence and state buildings.  There are ceremonial gates, palaces, temples, pavilions, and galleries.  It is divided into concentric walled sections, the innermost being the Forbidden Purple City, where the emperor and family entertained, recreated, and housed the royal concubines.  Much of the compound was destroyed or burned during the war.  But the semi-destruction gives the whole place an air of mystery and one can almost sense the ghosts of the past.


           Hue’s secondary sight is Thien Mu Pagoda, found just outside the city .  Easily accessible by boat, that is how we traveled to see it.  This temple complex is dominated by its 70+ foot high tower, Thap Phuoc Duyen.  Originally founded 400 years ago, the temple became a center of political rebellion in the 1960s.  In fact, one of the seminal events in Vietnamese history had its genesis here.  It was a monk of Thien Mu, Thich Quang Duc, who publicly burned himself in Saigon in protest of contemporary policies.  A photographer captured the incident and the image was shared across the globe on newspaper and magazine covers. The auto which transported him to his destiny can still be seen in the temple complex.

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           One last experience rounded out our time in Hue.  From Thien Mu we took a dragon-headed river boat up the Perfume River into the Hue countryside.  The area is littered with royal tombs, all of which are impressive architectural expressions.  We stopped at the tomb of Minh Mang, one of the most famous.  It is renowned for its peaceful, wooded setting.  A great granite staircase leads to ceremonial gate through which one enters a lovely courtyard, backed by the impressive pavilion.  The tomb and the pleasant river cruise seemed the perfect conclusion of our Hue activities.

Imprint Tours has a group visiting Vietnam right now with colleagues Sarah Murdoch and Trish Feaster.  Follow their adventures on FB, Twitter, and/or Instagram:  thetravelphile and adventureswithsarahm

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Imprint Tours' Vietnam - Tam Coc & Halong Bay

On day two of our Vietnam tour we visit the stunning landscape of Tam Coc.  It has been said that Tam Coc is the terra firma version of famous Halong Bay.  Like Halong, it is the geology that is special here, with karst stacks and towers jutting up from the valley floor.  While not as vast and high as the karst formations of southern China and Halong, those of Tam Coc are still breathtaking to behold.  The activity one comes for is a slow, luxurious paddle up the river to and through the three caves (like the hongs of Thailand) which give the area its name (Tam Coc means “Three Caves”).  The unique element is the manner in which one is rowed.  The locals here have perfected a technique whereby they row the small boats with their feet.  Its fascinating, pleasing, and of course, extremely photogenic. And the experience is sublime.  Drifting peacefully along past rice paddies and occasional temples, always with the stunning backdrop of the karst formations, propelled by your own private rower.  At first your ‘rower’ is likely to chatter on in Vietnamese with a big smile on his or her face.  But eventually they settle in to the task at hand and you are left in silence to enjoy the show drifting by.  The caves themselves are fun, creating echoes in the darkness and emerging again to sunshine – like emerging from the gates of Hades into the world of light and the living.  There are even entrepreneurial locals who row out to meet you with cold drinks for sale.

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On day three we headed out for one of the great natural wonders of the world, Halong Bay.  Halong is probably the most majestic collection of karst stacks and islands anywhere in the world.  The marine setting makes it even more spectacular.  Most of us are familiar with this natural wonder from movies or nature shows on television.  But as always, seeing something on a screen hardly compares to the real experience.  Around 2000 karst tower-islands sprout from the bay making a truly spectacular vista.  Most are shrouded in jungle vegetation and many are pierced by erosion-created grottos and lagoons.  Apart from visiting one of the larger caves, which we did, one can swim or kayak or simply sail around the bay marveling at the exquisite formations.  Excursion boats are everywhere.  But we opted to spend the night on the bay – in our opinion, the only way to experience this wonder.  We slept on converted junks which were quite comfortable.  Small but comfortable cabins with AC, a tiny desk, and ensuite bathrooms.  And the food (fresh seafood of course) was some of the best on the tour.

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Ha Long means “descending dragon”.  Various Vietnamese legends all suggest the islands were created by a great dragon or dragons.  One suggests a great mountain dragon came crashing into the sea, its tail thrashing about creating the geologic chaos that characterizes the area.  Eventually, it settled on the seabed, its spiny dorsal creating the stalagmite islands.  Another suggests a family of dragons was sent by the gods to protect Vietnam from invaders.  The dragons spewed jewels into the bay, each of which sprouted into one of the protecting islands. The scientific explanations are not as fun, but any way one chooses to believe, the results are beyond spectacular and not to be missed.

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Imprint Tours has a group visiting Vietnam right now with colleagues Sarah Murdoch and Trish Feaster.  Follow their adventures on FB, Twitter, and/or Instagram:  thetravelphile and adventureswithsarahm

Imprint Tours' Vietnam - Hanoi

In 2015 Imprint Tours had its first tour of Vietnam.  As there is currently an Imprint group in this up and coming Southeast Asian nation, and another scheduled again next February, it seems an appropriate time to share some of the recollections from that first foray. I had no serious trepidation about how I, as an American, might be treated.  But I would be lying if I said I expected such warm and welcoming treatment.  The war is a distant memory here and American visitors represent commerce, income, and prosperity.  Relaxed attitudes, genuine smiles, and open hearts were the order of every day on the tour.  And that constant will probably be reflected in all my blogs.

Overall, I found our Vietnam tour to be one driven by cultural connections far more than big bang sights.  Hanoi, where we began, reflected that dynamic as well.  It was the perfect place to start.  The city is big, busy, and loud but it has a welcoming energy and ambiance and I felt relaxed right away. The Temple of Literature and Hoa Lo Prison (aka the Hanoi Hilton) were interesting and engaging.  But they were hardly jaw-dropping.  I enjoyed them both, but not more so than wandering the streets, trying street food, and engaging the locals who spoke English.  Oh, and while hardly a pleasant highlight, the number one sport for pedestrians is dodging the almost astronomical number of motorbikes in the city.  They swarm like locusts, only pausing for the occasional red lights, behind which they gather like water behind a newly constructed dam.  Building up pressure, widening out behind, filling every void, the kinetic energy building for the big surge when the light turns green.

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The Temple of Literature is well worth visiting of course.  Almost 1000 years old, it is dedicated to Confucius and honors Vietnam’s literary heroes.  The entrance gate is one of the iconic images of the city and country, a classic example of Vietnamese architecture:  multi-tiered with Chinese-like winged flourishes.  Manicured gardens surround you as you pass a gallery featuring 82 stelae, which proclaim the genius of 1300+ scholars and writers from Vietnamese history.  Each stelae rests on the back of a turtle, a sacred animal in Vietnam and symbol of wisdom. The culmination of the compound is a grand courtyard entered via the notable Khue Van Cac (Pavilion of the Constellation of Literature), built in 1802. The most imposing building on the courtyard is a temple dedicated to Confucius.  It’s interior is dominated by an impressively large statue of the great teacher.  Incense burns in great sand-filled cauldrons, lending an air of mystery and mysticism.


Hoa Lo Prison, better known as the Hanoi Hilton (the name coined by American POWs), is a different kind of experience all together.  As one would expect, it is hardly as uplifting as the celebratory Temple of Lit.  The timbre here is more sobering.  Most of the exhibits feature scenes from the colonial period when the French built and used the prison for the incarceration of rebellious Vietnamese.  But a few rooms feature images and artifacts from the Vietnam War, when US pilots were imprisoned.  Visitors see a very sanitized version of life in the prison, which of course is at odds with the documented reports of those who were housed here.  But that is to be expected.


Two last sights are certainly worth a photographic drive by.  Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum is an expectedly large and imposing building.  Reminiscent of the political architecture of the Chinese Communist Party to the north, it is certainly a fitting memorial to their independence hero.  The second is lovely Hoan Keim Lake.  A stroll around this lake provides a peaceful respite from the hub-bub of the urban surroundings (though one does not escape the sound of the relentless traffic).  It is particularly peaceful at dawn before the city fully wakes up.  A picturesque temple on a tiny island make the lake one of the most photographed subjects in the entire country.

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One last “event” bears mentioning.  Vietnamese Water Puppets are a bit of performance art worth seeking out.  Unique to Vietnam, it was invented by rice farmers about a millennium ago.  They carved puppets out of fig tree wood (water resistant) and performed in ponds or flooded rice paddy fields.  Today, eleven trained puppeteers manipulate elaborate puppets up to two feet long and weighing 30+ pounds in a square tank of waste deep water.  The clever manipulations make the figures appear to walk on water.  It takes considerable skill, long years of training, and the techniques are a closely guarded secret.  The performance is truly unique, visually engaging, and simply a lot of fun.  I think it’s a no-miss activity in Hanoi.

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Hanoi, with its international airport, is certainly the ideal place to start a north to south trek through Vietnam.  I would say it is worth one single day of sight seeing, and another couple of days as a base for seeing the many interesting things nearby.  On our tour, we ventured to Tam Coc and Halong Bay, but there are plenty of other worthwhile things to see in the north.

Imprint Tours has a group visiting Vietnam right now with colleagues Sarah Murdoch and Trish Feaster.  Follow their adventures on FB, Twitter, and/or Instagram:  thetravelphile and adventureswithsarahm

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Secret Botswana

Chobe hippos

Chobe hippos

Botswana has become my favorite African country to visit.  It exudes a fresh, progressive, successful vibe that distinguishes it from its neighbors.  The Chobe region, Botswana’s most famous and accessible wildlife area, is close to the borders of Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Namibia.  Compared to those countries, Botswana is a breath of fresh air.  In those other cases, European colonial powers extracted each country’s natural wealth and exploited their native peoples for labor.  After independence dictatorial rulers gained power and lined their own pockets rather than build institutions that benefitted its citizens.  The result can be seen in poor and deteriorating infrastructures, continuing graft and corruption in government, the squandering of natural resources, and the continued poverty of much of their citizenry.  For us visitors the hassle factor is high as the desperate target tourists for the sale of junky trinkets or bowls and clothe prints made in China.  As a visitor one feels the desperation, poverty, and frustration and sees the inequalities of their social system and the inefficiencies of a government overburdened by the ravages of red tape.

Chobe National Park entrance

Chobe National Park entrance

But Botswana is and feels different.  It is immediately obvious at the border.  Entering Zimbabwe or Zambia is time consuming and trying while crossing into Botswana is easy and quick – plus no visa fee.  Easy-peasy.  The roads are in good condition.  Check-ins for national parks are smooth and efficient.  The accommodations are better kept and maintained (although there are still some challenges on that count).  Almost everyone speaks English and most speak it well.  Botswanans have an easy grace and air of confidence that is refreshing and attractive.  I swear even the skies seem a richer shade of blue.

Okavango Delta accommodations

Okavango Delta accommodations

Being an “arm-chair” historian, I always look to a country’s history for explanations.  In the case of Botswana, the answers are quite clear.  It was an arid, resource-poor country during the period of European colonization.  Basically, no European powers were interested in claiming and administrating it.  When independence movements swept through southern Africa in the 19th century, Botswana sought client status with Great Britain to avoid being absorbed by newly independent and expansionist neighbors.  Hence the good English, good infrastructure, and efficient institutions.  Eventually, when its institutions matured sufficiently, Botswana negotiated its full independence in 1966.  Then, in an amazing case of great timing, diamonds were discovered shortly thereafter.  Botswana went from poor to prosperous overnight.  Moreover, the natural maturation of Botswanan society had paid dividends.  The resources were used to promote the public good:  infrastructure, education, environmental and resource protection, and solid social and democratic political institutions.

Well-educated Okavango guide Master explains the flora of the area

Well-educated Okavango guide Master explains the flora of the area

Today Botswana is a beacon of success.  In every way measurable, it is becoming a leader in Africa.  Chobe National Park and the Okavango Delta provide two of the best game viewing experiences on the continent.  In 2014 Botswana banned all hunting, a lucrative activity in all of its neighbors.  Military bases have been moved to park borders to provide high profile deterrence to would be poachers.  The protected elephant herd is now the largest in Africa.  The friends I have made there are intelligent, well-educated, and thoughtful people.  Probably the best cultural connection experience of the tour is the Q&A we organize with Milton, the articulate director of our safari lodge in Chobe.  I love taking Imprint travelers to Africa.  Botswana is the secret surprise and, in my mind, the emerging jewel in the African crown.

Classic Chobe River cruise

Classic Chobe River cruise

The Biggest Tour Day Ever!

I have been guiding tours abroad for almost a quarter century.  And I firmly believe we recently completed the fullest, most spectacular single day of any tour, any time.  I was still catching my breath the next day.  We were in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe where we began our Southern Safaris tour.  In a single day we visited the falls, had lunch in a locals’ home, took a helicopter ride over the falls, enjoyed the classic Zambezi River sunset cruise, and then completed our day with a riverside dinner.  Oh, and for good measure, the following day we got up very early for our Rhino Safari where we spotted 5 Black Rhinos.

Our first full day of the tour began with a fantastic hot breakfast at Ilala Lodge.  I had scouted Ilala on my previous tours to Africa and knew I wanted their fantastic cuisine, excellent location, and attentive service.  It is a lovely facility with comfortable public spaces, a huge breakfast or dinner terrace with views across to the falls’ mist plume rising above the jungle, and characteristic “boma-style” thatched roofs.  The lobby, common rooms, and hallways are adorned with prints of historic photographs or etchings of the falls, Livingstone, and other famous explorers.  It’s a great ambiance.  Moreover, each room has an espresso maker – an absolute god-send in Africa.  Although they famously grow great coffee here, they do not have a coffee culture themselves.  In other words – a good cup of coffee is hard to come by.

Shortly after sunrise we made the 5 minute walk to the falls.  After procuring rain ponchos, we entered the National Park before the usual hoard of tour groups arrived.  I took everyone to the spot where I had first seen the falls in 2014.  “Spectacular!” is the only, yet grossly inadequate description of this “Wonder of the World”.  And at that first viewpoint, over Devil’s Cataract, one sees only about 15% of the falls.  After many photos, we moved on to the statue of David Livingstone, the first European to see the falls and the one who named them for his queen.  We had a short installment of history and some fun facts about the falls (a mile+ across, up to a 340 foot drop into the chasm below, a million liters of water per second, etc.) and a brief geology lesson.  Next it was time to venture to the middle of the falls – Danger Point (DP).

DP is a spur of land that is the closest point to the falls and smack dab in the widest section of falling water.  Since we were there at the end of the rainy season the mist plume was simply tremendous.  The falls explode at the bottom of the gorge and the mist plum is redirected upwards by the gorge wall you are standing on.  The plum billows up like a nuclear mushroom cloud, creating the phenomena that gave the falls their local name: Mosi au Tunya, the Smoke that Thunders.  The best name for a waterfall ever!  DP is the place where one most feels the full, explosive power of the falls.  I love it!  You don’t see a thing – because the dense mist plume turns instantly to rainfall and returns to earth in a deluge.  Standing on DP in March is like being in the most intense torrential downpour one can imagine.  The force of nature is powerfully and viscerally felt.  It is an amazing experience.

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We retreated from DP and dispersed for free time.  Some ventured further along to view the famous Gorge Bridge while others returned to the various viewpoints for photography.  It was a great start to the tour.

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After the falls visit, our busy day continued with a cultural connection experience.  We went to a Chinotimba township home for lunch.  Our hostess, Flatter, welcomed us with a big smile.  As her helpers offered warm water and towels for washing hands she explained their traditional lifestyle and homelife.  Our modern American sensibilities were ruffled a bit when she invited the men to come to the table first.   We were served traditional foods:  boiled peanuts (in the shell) and black-eyed peas; roasted peanuts, fried Mopane worms, a mixture of the boiled peanuts and peas, corn, corn with peanuts, and a small local squash.  The tea served was Rohrbush tea, which we all enjoyed very much.  The biggest eye-brow raiser was of course the fried Mopane worms.  Crispy and salty, I rather enjoyed this excellent source of protein.  Not unlike popcorn.  Most in the group tried at least one but some just couldn’t do it.  After our light meal Flatter circulated around the group answering questions about her life in the township.

Next up was the Flight of Angels scenic helicopter ride.  The name comes from the Livingstone quote when he first saw the falls:  “The whole scene was extremely beautiful; the banks and islands dotted over the river are adorned with sylvan vegetation of great variety of colour and form . . . no one can imagine the beauty of the view from any thing witnessed in England.  It had never been seen before by European eyes; but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”  The 15-minute flights sounds too short but is actually a perfect amount of time in the air.  One is swept out over the mighty Zambezi, then on to the falls where the pilot does wide arching figure eights so both sides of the aircraft get great views of the falls, the mist plume, Zambia, and the descending zig-zag gorges that lead away from the falls.  With the immense mist plume that obscures much of the view from the ground, this is the only way to see the falls in their entirety.  And it is simply breath-taking.

We barely had time to freshen up in our rooms before we were transported to the nearby Zambezi jetty to board our Sunset River Cruise.  It’s a classic Victoria Falls activity.  Affectionately called the “Booze Cruise”, each boat is equipped with an open bar.  We drifted slowly along the mighty waterway, stopping to observe several hippos in a grassy pool, monitor lizards, and African fish eagles.  The conversations got more animated as the drinks flowed and we were treated to a picture-perfect African sunset of massive, billowing clouds lit up by the last rays of the sun.

Our final activity on this block buster day was our riverside brai, or African barbeque.  As we disembarked the cruise boat, we were welcomed by a troup of singers serenading us with traditional African songs and rhythms.  They sang and danced while we settled in at our candle-lit tables for dinner.  The Ilala staff had assembled a buffet of roasted meats (cooked on the open barbeque), salads, and local vegetables, potatoes, and rice.  The food was excellent, the ambiance superb, and the entertainment excellent.  It was a fitting end to what is indelibly imprinted in my memory as “The Big Day”.

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