Thursday, December 29, 2016

Hong Kong Disneyland + 4 Grandkids = 2 Tired Grandparents

The Family.
We got to visit with R2D2 at Hong Kong Disneyland.
Brody was appended by three Storm Trooper who were looking for a interloper.
Quinn with the world on her shoulders.
Quinn attends the Jedi Knight School.
The fantastic Lion King show.
Quinn shopping for flowers for her mom.

Brad showing the kids crickets that the locals use to feed birds at the Yuen Po Bird Market.
Fun times with the cousins.
The near by fish market sells every type of tropical fish known.
Three very tired grandkids.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

A Family Christmas in Hong Kong

On the morning of December 21st we left the womb of the Celebrity Millennium and were met at the cruise ship terminal by our son-in-law Nash and our son, Brad. Brad and his family had flown over to spend the Christmas holiday with our daughter’s family.

We drove out to Lobster Bay (near Clearwater Bay Road) and had a great reunion with our daughter and her children Quinn (age 6) and Conner (age 4) and our son’s two children, Brody (age 6) and Bennett (age 3). Since Christa’s house was packed to the gunnels with kids we stayed at a friend’s house nearby where it was a little quieter.

Rather than give a running narrative of all the the next two week’s activities, we’ll let the photos and captions tell the story.
Exploring the back streets of Sai Kung with the grandkids.
Bowling at the state of the art Tikitiki Bowling Alley in Sai Kung. Nash showed us all what real bowling looked like.
Mimi (Meryl) spent lots of time reading to the grandkids (here with Brody and Conner).
I spent one of the best times with my son Brad golfing at the Clearwater Bay Golf and Country Club. Thanks so much to Nash for hosting us at this amazing golf course.
Cousins Brody and Quinn got to attend golf camp at the Clearwater Bay Club.
Christa, Melba and the family put together an incredible Christmas Eve dinner.
Lots of energy with these kids (L to R Brody, Conner, Quinn and Bennett).
All the family together for the first time in years.
Bennett, Quinn, Brody, and Conner in their Christmas pajamas.
A family tradition:  Bobba (Walter) reading The Night Before Christmas to the grandkids.
The most wonderful noise in the world: young children waking up on Christmas morning.

Star Wars action figures seem to be the thing this Christmas.
We babysat the grandkids to give the parents a bit of well deserved time off. Quinn orchestrated a wedding between a Star Wars trooper and a American Girl doll.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Return to Hong Kong

Leaving Ho Chi Minh City the Celebrity Millennium steamed north in South China Sea to our next destination, Hue, Vietnam. Unfortunately the weather was quickly deteriorating and the Captain made an announcement that it would be iffy if we could make port in Hue. 
This was a much nicer way to weather the storm than to have huge waves crashing over the decks of Flying Cloud.
As the day progressed the seas built to 20 - 25 ft. and winds topped 60 knots.  For Flying Cloud those conditions would be life threatening, but the huge 965-ft. Millennium powered through the storm with a minimum of disruption on the ship. While some passengers got seasick, and walking on the upper decks was a challenge, our cabin in the center of ship close to the waterline was fairly calm given the conditions. As we approached Hue the next morning the Captain announced the port had been closed by Vietnamese authorities and the city of Hoi An, one of the more popular tour destinations, was flooding in the torrential rains. Hue was the destination I most wanted to see so it was very frustrating to pass it by.

The Grand Dining Room Our table was on the upper floor to the right. 
We obviously didn't dress like this for dinner, but couldn't resist the chance to photograph the empty dining room early in the day.
We spent the next few days at sea doing our favorite shipboard activities: eating, working out, reading, and more eating. We needed to reach Hong Kong before we both turned into sumo wrestlers. On the evening of December 19th we slowly cruised through the phantasmagorica of brightly lit skyscrapers lining Hong Kong Harbor.  Ironically we were landing at the new Kai Tak Cruise Terminal, which was built on the site of the old Kai Tak Airport where Meryl and I first flew into Hong Kong in the 1970s. The approach for the airplanes then was to make a steep turn and then dive in between high rise buildings seeming just off the wingtips to facilitate a landing. If you want to reminisce, look up “Kai TaK landing” on YouTube so you can understand what a nail-biting experience it was for passengers (and pilots).

You can imagine this view at night when all of Hong Kong is brightly lit.
We had one day remaining on the ship in Hong Kong before departure, so Meryl and I decided to do the quintessential Hong Kong tourist activity:  Take the tram up to the top of Victoria Peak, the highest peak overlooking Hong Kong. While our daughter had warned us, we were shocked at the two-hour long line to ride the tram. We quickly hailed a roving taxi but he wanted $60 for the 10-minute ride to the top. After giving him the “what turnip truck do we look like we fell off of” look, we jumped out and got another cab that had his meter running. Fare was $6 to the top, which was actually cheaper than the tram ride. 

Crowding on the downhill ride of the Peak Tram.
A selfie on top of Victoria Peak.
We explored the shopping mall at the top and then took a long walk up Mount Austin Road enjoying the spectacular views along the way. There were old military (British? Japanese?) emplacements dug into the steep hillside on the way up. At the top was a incredible lookout with 360 degree views of the surrounding cityscape. Hong Kong is such an amazing city with a well storied history, and even though this was probably our 30th visit we always enjoy the city.

At the shopping complex atop The Peak we stopped to get some well deserved Hagen Daz ice cream, which turned out to be probably the most expensive in the world at $14 for two tiny single scoop cones. Hard to enjoy at those prices. 

The line for the ride down was much shorter so we enjoyed the tram ride down the steep hillside through the mid-levels area of Hong Kong. We climbing down the myriad of stairways down to Central, where we took the underground subway back to Kwun Tong where we boarded a shuttle bus to our cruise ship.  

As usual we were pretty tired after the long day touring the city but still enjoyed a final calorie loaded dinner before disembarking the next day to rejoin the whole gang for Christmas.

Friday, December 16, 2016

A Day of Remembrance in Vietnam

Our next stop (on December 16th) was the Vietnamese port city of Phu My, located about two hours from Ho Chi Minh City (formerly called Saigon). For anyone my age, Vietnam conjures up a multitude of memories. One of my friends, a decorated tank Captain during the Vietnam War, recommended an excellent book called The Cat from Hue. Written by CBS Correspondent John Laurence, the 872-page tome takes you along on patrols with 18-year-olds fresh from Nebraska farms into the hellish environment of Vietnam’s jungles. It also documented the lives of the war correspondents like Laurence, who were greeted by the troops with the admonition “You mean you are here because you want to be? Shee-it.”  The book certainly set the tone for our tour of Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City.

Over 40 buses await the hoards of passengers departing the Celebrity Millennium.
As usual, we had a two-hour drive into the city with a very talkative tour guide. He told us the average factory worker makes $8 a day, and his wife gets up at 5:00 am to take the kids 20 miles to a favored preschool, since without education you have no future in today’s Vietnam. Life is better now in Vietnam, but it’s still a daily struggle for most of the people.

As we crossed the bridge over the Saigon River we could see the gleaming office towers in the distance. The economy in Vietnam is very good, but most of the jobs are in the city, while most of the population lives in the rural areas meaning thousands of people commute each day on small motorcycles. The traffic, like Bangkok, is beyond description. Trying to cross a major city street on foot is suicidal, pedestrians have no right of way and the motorcycles are packed so tight they have little choice of direction.

This represents relatively light traffic on a side street in downtown Ho Chi Minh City.
We pray these little girls have a brighter future in Vietnam than past generations.
Our first stop was the Ton Duc Thang Museum near the river. The museum is a tribute to President Thang, a patriotic hero and fighter who took over as President after President Ho Chi Minh in 1969. The small, intimate museum features over 600 historic items, from early coins and jewelry to historic maps and paintings. Our guide mentioned that human habitation of Vietnam dates back over 4,000 years and 1,100 of those years were under the domination of various armies, from the Chinese and Genghis Kahn to the Japanese, French, Americans and now North Vietnamese in more modern times. 
Spiked poles installed at low tide help thwart attack by the huge Chinese fleet. 
Always out numbered and outgunned, the Vietnamese became superb strategists on how to prolong the fighting to wear down their enemies. When Chinese armies attacked in the 13th century with hundreds of ships, the Vietnamese waited until low tide and lined the harbor with sharpened underwater poles that impaled the Chinese ships that entered at high tide. During the wars with the French and Americans, the Vietnamese built an elaborate underground tunnel system with huge storerooms, barracks, kitchens, and hospitals. Despite carpet bombing by the American B-52s, many of the tunnels held, allowing the Vietnamese to survive and escape the attacking armies.

Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh City.
An old helicopter and fighter jet from the Vietnam War.
These maps are reputably superior to the maps field commanders used during the Vietnam War.
Underground Situation Room where Henry Kissenger and General Westmorland planned strategy.
The communication system is very rudimentary compared to todays high powered radios.
We next visited the Reunification Palace, famous during the Vietnam war for the scene of American helicopters on the roof top trying to evacuate US and Vietnamese personnel during the fall of Saigon. The palace was the home to President Diem, and following his death was occupied by General Thieu who was then the head of a military junta. The tour highlighted the President’s office, the Conference Room (where Henry Kissinger meet with top officials), the Minister’s Cabinet Room on the top floors, and the war time bunkers in the basement where the government hunkered down during mortar attacks. It reminded me of the War Room bunker in London inhabited by Winston Churchill during World War II, with rooms full of maps, communications equipment and sleeping areas. 

The famous scene on April 30, 1975 as American and Vietnamese personnel tried to escape the attacking North Vietnamese troops in downtown Saigon. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)
It was disturbing to stand at the wrought iron front gates in front of the Palace thinking back to April 30, 1975 when throngs of Vietnamese who had been working for the Americas pleaded with guards to let them through so they could evacuate by the helicopters landing on the roof. He told one tear-wrenching story of a mother whose husband had already evacuated, but the mother and 5-year-old daughter were struggling to get through when the mother was trampled to death. Thankfully someone grabbed the traumatized young girl and she made it America to start a new life.

The infamous roof top bar at the Rex Hotel.
The gray building was formerly CIA headquarters.
As we left we passed the old Rex Hotel, whose top floor bar was the nightly habitat of foreign journalists, CIA operatives, black marketers, drug dealers, and every other sort of war time rabble. Nearby the guide pointed out an aging gray building that served as CIA headquarters during the war. If only the walls could talk.

The historic French Colonial Post Office.
Interior of the post office.
These phone booths were once crowded with journalists trying to file stories about the war with their editors back home.
Ornate cut paper flowers and greeting cards.
On a lighter note we visited the classic yellow painted Post Office, which was a tribute to the beautiful French inspired architecture that dominates certain areas of the city. Everywhere we stopped we were inundated by vendors selling cut paper flowers, creative cards, baseball hats, and counterfeit Polo shirts. After a short while in Vietnam you come to have a strong respect for the resiliency of people whose lives have been under constant turmoil from centuries of war. If nothing else, they are the consummate survivors.

The life of many Vietnamese hasn't changed much over the last 50 years.
It was a quiet ride back to the ship with Meryl and I contemplating everything we’d seen, with a realization of the incredible sacrifices made by many of our peers and classmates who served in the Armed Forces during the war. It was a highly unpopular war. Most didn’t want to be there, but they felt it was their duty and they did the best they could under the circumstances. They deserved much better than the reception they got when they returned home to the U.S. And rest in peace to the thousands that never made it home.