BOB JONES / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-BULLETIN
In misty Halong Bay, vendors with snacks and fruits idle by tourist boats cruising the waters of the South China Sea landmark.
Vietnam, Laos are top buys
Dicker and check Internet sites daily to get the best fares as they can change every day
Vietnam and Laos are the current Best Buys for your American dollar in this age of the rising euro, British pound and the Canadian dollar. Take advantage of this monetary imbalance while it lasts.
Vietnam and Laos have been a big part of my adult life. I've worked as a foreign correspondent in both places and regularly return as a tour leader. My daughter was born in Saigon and now lives in and works for USAID in Hanoi.
These are some do and don't tips for travelers from Honolulu. If you clip and save this, you cannot go wrong. Readers are welcome to e-mail me with questions not addressed here.
You can go to Vietnam and Laos on your own just about as cheaply as a tour group if you do your air-fare homework. You have to dicker and scour Internet sites daily for fares change daily. ANA and JAL seem to offer the best rates, but there are no direct flights from Honolulu to Saigon or Hanoi. You have to live with that.
You can save yourself some in-airport hassles by getting your visa from the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington, D.C., before you go. It's possible to obtain Vietnamese and Laotian visas on arrival at the respective airports, but that involves standing and filling out cumbersome forms with all the other arrivals from every nation.
Once you're out of the airport, you'll find that Vietnam and Laos are like Europe. Taxi drivers and hotel people all speak English, so don't give language a second thought. And everybody there knows and loves Hawaii. It's the source of remittance money from expatriates.
I'm going to walk you through Saigon, My Tho, Dalat, Da Nang, Hoi An, Hue, Hanoi and Halong in Vietnam, and the only place you need to go in Laos -- Luang Prabang, pronounced loong pra-BANHG. Keo Sananikone has Keo's Thai restaurants here, but he and his family are Laotian.
BOB JONES / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-BULLETIN
Terry Fitzpatrick of Kamilo Street, an engineer at the Kahala Mandarin Oriental, got advice on firing the Viet Cong AK-47 for $1 a bullet at Cu Chi.
You do need to see the Mekong Delta. I've always driven south from Saigon by bus to this riverside city. But after all the highway deaths from speeding cars, truck and buses on Highway One, the police clamped down on the 40 mph speed limit. So take the hydrofoil from the Saigon River. There's only one hotel, the Chuong Dong, with room rates of $20 to $30 per night, on the river in My Tho. The rooms are comparable to Motel 6 and the food is lousy, but suffer for a night so you can chug out to midriver islands the next day for a photo-op on a waterway bustling with commercial activity. For lunch, don't pass up the local delicacy, fried "elephant's ear" fish, served standing on its pectoral fins so it resembles a platter-size elephant's ear. It's meant to be wrapped with rice paper and vegetables.
Saigon: This storied city is now known as Ho Chi Minh City to the outside world, but locally, it's still called Saigon. It's full of high-rises and garish hotels, blinking billboards, noise, hundreds of motorbikes, motorcycles, cars, buses and trucks belching exhaust fumes. There will be dozens of people insisting on selling you stuff you don't need or want. In addition, hookers are back on the streets like the old war years.
All this is tolerable for two days max.
Pass on the cheaper Nguyen Hue (Street of Flowers) hotels and go for the $70 Rex, Continental or Majestic. Top-of-the-line choices include the Caravelle and, further out of town, the Marco Polo Omni. Many of the hotels were given Vietnamese names after the war, but they are back to the English names that returning Americans remember.
Have a drink atop the Rex; have a soup at Pho #13 a block off the river near the Majestic, then get out of town once you've toured the old presidential palace, the War Museum, the Cholon Market, and taken a night stroll on the riverfront. Don't worry about having to stop to convert your dollars. Everybody seems to take the still-mighty American greenback in this city of 24-hour commerce.
Dalat: This cool retreat in the mountains north of Saigon was once one of my favorite cities and is the hometown of Duc and Tri Nguyen of Duc's Bistro on Maunakea Street.
This was once the preferred highland town of Vietnam's sophisticates. I cannot think of a single reason to go today unless you would enjoy playing golf at one of three good courses in the rain, which is very frequent.
Dalat does have some fine old buildings of the French colonial period, which is its saving grace. If you want a real highlands experience, you must go farther into the Annamite mountain chain to Pleiku or Kontum. That's where you'll encounter the indigenous tribes usually referred to as montagnards.
BOB JONES / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-BULLETIN
Ken Muraoka of Kailua made a new friend in the Mekong Delta.
You'll probably want to go just because it's adjacent to China Beach of the TV series. I use the Bamboo Green Hotel in midtown for my tour groups, but be warned: The second-floor corridor houses a "massage parlor," which means sex parlor throughout Vietnam and Laos, and is commonplace.
The illicit activity is curtailed in five-star hotels such as the Caravelle in Saigon or the Hilton in Hanoi, but it's present in most four-star hotels.
Most hotels in Vietnam are owned by Asian companies, and I suspect their owners believe their target clientele want the sex services. Remember that it's certainly not forced on you, but if you can't stomach the existence of these happenings, you're going to have a problem in these countries.
Hoi An: This seaside town just south of Da Nang is designated as a World Heritage Site. There are no buses or cars, just cyclos (bikes with forward-of-the-pedaler seats), textile factories, restaurants and zillions of tourists who want to see the Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese architecture. Get in, have lunch, go to the main silk factory to buy gifts and get out. Most visitors make this a day-trip destination from Da Nang.
Hue: Is accessible via a bus trip north of Da Nang through the Hai Van pass on a hairy switchback highway loaded with trucks and buses, with a minimum of clearance for oncoming traffic. You'll see wreckage of vehicles that slipped over the edges. A truck tunnel is being built and should make this a more relaxing trip without the constant fear of being shoved over the side by some reckless or drunken commercial driver.
Hue is a must. It's the old mandarin capital city of the 1800s and heartland for those named Nguyen. It's the home of the Nguyen Dynasty, perched on a river, full of great architecture and magnificent tombs. My old NBC News office was in the Huong Giang Hotel, which is still on the Perfume River. But the next-door Century offers the same rate, at about $60 double, and has much better food and a great pool.
Yes, the pool-level massage parlor does "da kine" massage. Those who just need to soothe aching necks and shoulders need to make it clear that they don't want "da kine."
Plan on spending three days here if you can. The sightseeing is endless, the market will make you dizzy (and eat up your camera film), and don't leave without taking a leisurely ride on the river. Every moment is a knockout!
Hanoi: A friend asked me the other day where I'd live if not in Hawaii, and I quickly answered, "Hanoi," even though it has no beach. Hanoi is about two hours east at Halong Bay and has an Eastern European feel with a touch of Paris. It's set on seven lakes and in the fall has a kind of San Francisco climate. But like all of Vietnam, it's very hot in summer.
Spend $135 and stay at the fabulous Sofitel Metropole Hotel (remember, all Vietnam hotels charge a 15.5 percent tax), where a fantastic restaurant features an a complete French meal for less than $30.
Another option is to spend just $30 and stay at the Galaxy in the Old Quarter. The rooms are not fancy though very nice.
There are lots of upper-crust restaurants in this capital city, cheap taxis and a great bar upstairs at the old "Hanoi Hilton Tower," where MidWeek columnist Jerry Coffee spent years with other American pilots shackled in dank cells on the ground floor as a tortured POW. Today, American tourists pay to see the cells that held Jerry and Arizona Sen. John McCain.
The city is full of great French architecture, outdoor cafes, a mausoleum with Ho Chi Minh's body on display, and the world-famous water-puppet theater.
Hanoi is also the jumping-off point for tourists flooding in by car and rail northwest to Sapa, the mountain home of many indigenous tribespeople generally classified as Hmong. That's a simplification, but nobody lets fact get in the way of moneymaking tourism.
There is only one OK hotel in Sapa, the Victoria, and sleeping berths are scarce on the train, so you need to book ahead. You can do that via Sinhcafe Tours in Hanoi on the Internet. Tell Mr. Nam I sent you, and you might get an extra soupçon of service.
Halong Bay: Situated east of Hanoi, the bay is fast becoming too touristy to be fun. Still, people show up because the bay is dotted with striking karst extrusions and the waters are filled with wooden junks. The bay is one of the most photographed locales in Southeast Asia, and it will wow you even as you lament the commercialization.
If you go, check into the Halong Hotel. Do not be suckered into a one-day trip from Hanoi. That's too long on the road, and you'll be exhausted when you get back after dark.
Hire your own boatman and tell him you do NOT want to go to any of the popular tourist grottos, in favor of more tranquil settings.
BOB JONES / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-BULLETIN
Bill Dupin, of the Punahou class of '59, tried a bottle of scorpion wine at Cu Chi.
Everyone falls in love with Luang Prabang. Make it your major Laos destination. This is a World Heritage Site, so it's low profile, accessible by direct flights every day from Hanoi. Visas are issued at the airport for about $30. Stay at a one of the many small but wonderful hotel-guest houses in the center of town on the Mekong River for $5 to $20. Or go higher and stay at one of my favorites, the Sala Prabang right on the river, or the Souvannaphoum House in the downtown near the old palace.
Allow a good tour guide to take you to an upriver local village but DO NOT go on the Pak Ou upriver cave trip. You'll be floating upriver forever and downriver forever just to see a cave with small, inserted-by-people Buddhas. Big deal. Visit the whiskey village or pay your guide to show you a typical but nontouristy village where you can see real life and a one-room schoolhouse.
Spend three or four days here. There are great restaurants and bars here of the minimalist kind. Guides will take you upcountry, to elephant country and to village boondocks far north by river and then pickup truck on lousy roads if you have the inclination. My daughter has made it all the way north to the Chinese border, but the overnight accommodations are hard and dirty in smoky shacks with people who don't speak English or French.
Don't miss touring the old presidential palace and make sure you see the gift presented to the king by the late Hawaii governor John Burns. The king and queen died in a "camp" they were sent to by communist leaders when they took over in 1975.
Vientiane: Frankly, there are not many reasons to fly all the way south to this capital city, unless you just want to say you've been there. If you do go, stay in the center of town, near the restaurants, gift shops and central market, probably at the four-star Lao Plaza.
Avoid the government-owned Lang Xang Hotel on the Mekong. It smells and the room carpets are filthy, but it's here where you'll run into many expats in its bar because it's an old wartime hangout and all of us "ancients" still find our way there.
Vientiane is a restaurant city, and just south of it is the quirky Buddha Park, a misnomer because it has a mix of Buddhist and Hindu statuary on a large, large scale. Everyone I've ever brought here has burned through at least two rolls of film.