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Old 03-09-2011, 08:35 PM   #1
35Summers OP
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Vietnam: 2 Minsks, 28 days and 1700 miles

Here's a photo to start it off, before I get into a little background.



Last year, as part of a round-the-world trip my wife and I visited Vietnam for a month. Though we were motorcycling on our travels when we could, we weren't traveling with our own bikes, and we didn't have the budget to rent modern bikes for 3 or 4 weeks while we were in Vietnam, so we had to look for other options.

The solution was obvious when, thanks to some internet sleuthing, my wife found a British ex-pat living in Saigon who sells old Russian-made, 125cc, 2-stroke Minsks.

The idea of riding two 40-year-old Russian "dirtbikes" across Vietnam sounded so awesome / absurd / potentially disastrous that it was hard not to get excited!

We passed a couple of emails back and forth before arriving, met up with our guy on the second day there, picked out a pair of bikes and grabbed a few last minute items:

2-Stroke oil (not commonly found)
Spark plugs (REALLY not commonly found for 2-strokes)
and 2 worthless but awesome (and mandatory) helmets.

I'll just say here, before we get to the photos, that normally we are 100% ATGATT riders. In every other place we've ridden we've always been in full riding gear. If we don't have our own whenever we've rented bikes, we've always rented gear. But in this case we were traveling without gear and Vietnam is definitely not the place to find motorcycle gear of any kind (at least, we never came across any). So we did without. If it's any consolation, our average cruising speed was literally around 25 mph. Not that that will save you when you're sharing the road with things that do this:



Regardless, we survived. Anyway, enough background, let's get going!

In the morning, before we met with the guy to pick out our bikes I promised Anjel that she could have the first choice. After all, it was Valentine's Day (Best. Valentine's Gift. Ever).

She picked what would have been my first choice too. An awesome, vintage looking version with a great rounded tank. The guy was pretty sure it was a '69, though for the life of me I can't remember now what that guess was based on.

I picked out a similar looking bike for myself, but when we went back the next day to finalize some things, I decided to swap it out for another bike that didn't look as cool (although I certainly came to love the Mad Max aesthetic) but it did seem a lot more reliable.

Choosing the more reliable looking bike was absolutely one of the best decisions I made on this trip.

So, having just spent 13 MILLION dong (~$700 USD) on a pair of bikes we loaded everything up and were ready to head out!



All we were traveling with were our two backpacks which we rope-tied to the bikes' racks. (this shade photo is terrible, but there are a lot more to come).

Off we go!

Heading out of the city was CRAZY. For at least two hours it was super-hectic, jam-packed traffic. Unfortunately there are no photos from that stretch as I was way too focused on staying alive to consider taking my hands off the bars.

I haven't figured out how to embed video yet (if we can), so here's a link to a video we shot later in the trip that was very representative of the driving you'll find in most cities.

We learned the rules of the road pretty quickly:

1. If something is bigger than you, it has right of way

Most roads are 2 lane, undivided highways.

2. If you are riding in the center of your lane and there is no car or truck traffic behind you, oncoming drivers will consider the lane empty and freely move into your lane to pass. The safest/only place to ride is on the shoulder.

Here's another link to a good sample of highway riding (excuse the shaky cam).

Things did calm down eventually:



and despite the craziness (or perhaps because of it) we were having a great time!

Another thing we quickly learned about the bikes is that the clutches were designed for shifting, and that was it (and just barely that). Hold in the lever for anything longer than the 1 to 3 seconds it took to shift gears and it would immediately start overheating. The longer you held the clutch in, the less likely you were to be able to shift. If you were stopped in gear, after about 5 seconds the bike would start to pull a bit. After about 10 seconds, there was no way you were getting it onto another gear without killing the bike, shifting gears, and then firing it back up. Any longer than that, and you were probably going to grenade your clutch.

The clutch on these (along with, probably every other part of them) is known to fail with some frequency, so we tried to avoid using them any longer than necessary. Luckily, it was possible to find false neutrals between pretty much any 2 gears, so Neutral was never too far away.



After a few hours on the road we stopped at a little roadside restaurant for some Pho.



We hopped back on the bikes and had another hour or two of road behind us when disaster struck. Well, at least a serious setback. And again it's lame that there aren't more pictures of it, but this was the first day and it was all pretty overwhelming.

We were cruising along great, finally getting into some nice quiet stretches of road. All of a sudden Anjel pulls over and stops. "There was a crunching noise" was all she could really describe it as. Regardless, something was wrong with her transmission and the bike wasn't going anywhere. It would run, but it wouldn't go. We pushed the bike to a gas station a few blocks away and tried to figure out what to do. (that's actually my bike below)



I will admit that there was some frustration / mild panic at this point. We had been anticipating breakdowns that might set us back a day or two; I just wasn't expecting them to happen on day 1. This was also the first time we'd set out on a motorcycle adventure in a truly foreign land, and it was feeling like we'd kind of thrown ourselves into the deep end.

I was also a little frustrated because for the life of me I couldn't figure out what might have happened. I've done a fair amount of wrenching on the old 2-stroke Bultaco's and Greeves we have at home, and was counting on my basic mechanical knowledge to help us out when we ran into trouble. Under calmer circumstances I might have sussed it out, but as we were stuck with not too may hours of daylight left, not being able to come up with a reasonable guess was definitely a little frustrating.

Using a trick we'd frequently seen used by locals on the road that afternoon, I rolled to the left, behind Anjel's; suck out my right leg, bracing it on her left-rear passenger peg; and pushed her about 5 miles to the next town on our map that looked like it would have lodging and potentially a mechanic.

Where we ended up was a little locals-only style resort town called Loc An. Town is probably an overstatement. There was a nice little resort with maybe two dozen rooms, and across the street another 5 or 6 room hotel. Down the road there was a restaurant and with the exception of a few other homes and businesses that was about it.

As it was our first day on the road and it wasn't going at all as we had hoped, we splurged and got a room in the "fancy" hotel for about $43 for the night (around 900,000 dong).

We rolled our bikes into the garage.



unloaded and checked out our "Everon" room:



and pushed Anjel's bike down the block to a local mechanic where we successfully explained that "we didn't know what was wrong with the bike" but it "had to do with the transmission" by repeatedly pointing at the transmission and shrugging our shoulders.

We came back after dinner, about 2 hours later, and our new mechanic had successfully diagnosed the problem: Broken primary chain.

Through gesturing and some pointing at calendars we established that he knew where he could get one and would probably have it in a day or two. On the way back to the hotel we grabbed a few cans of beer (about 25 cents each from a roadside store) and headed back to the room for the night, to ponder spending the next few days here.



end of day 1...
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Old 03-09-2011, 08:48 PM   #2
PJungnitsch
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Spent a month in Vietnam this winter, and all you are saying rings very true! Look forward to hearing more.
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Old 03-10-2011, 12:19 AM   #3
Sideoff
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Awesome. Minsks are cool. Look forward to seeing the rest of the report!
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Old 03-10-2011, 12:36 AM   #4
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Bring it on,were getting withdrawel syptoms and need to go back
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Old 03-10-2011, 12:36 AM   #5
explodingmouse
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Bike Gear

Hi

I guess your at the wrong end of the country , but if you decide to do a lot of riding in the Northern mountains , you can get textile riding jackets in Hanoi at the russian shop on the ground floor of Hanoi Towers ( pants as well ) the site of the old Hanoi Hilton. Usually about $50US .
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Old 03-10-2011, 01:25 AM   #6
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@exploding: I'm sure if you knew where to look or who to ask, you could find anything.

Hell, I probably could have had gear made for me in Hoi An.
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Old 03-10-2011, 01:29 AM   #7
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Minsks. . .

I suppose they are slightly more reliable than a Royal Enfield.

Good luck
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Old 03-10-2011, 04:31 AM   #8
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In!
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Old 03-10-2011, 10:03 AM   #9
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Part 2

I forgot to note, that we covered 98 miles on the first day - including the 3 to 5 miles I pushed her bike at the end of the day.

The next day we bummed around a bit, having a leisurely breakfast, then riding 2-up on my bike to a nearby town that had an ATM to get some cash.

There were tons of great signs and billboards we passed:







We also switched hotels. The resort wasn't expensive by western standards, but it was more than we wanted to be spending, so I walked to the hotel across the street to see what their rates were.

The woman behind the desk was super enthusiastic and very friendly, and spoke a little english (certainly much better than our non-existant Vietnamese which didn't extend past the basic pleasantries). We hit it off immediately, the rooms were fine and it was almost half the price of the other hotel, so we moved our things over.

I had gone in by myself the first time, and in chatting with the woman, told her where we were from, and that I was there with my wife. So when we came back with all our stuff, there were now two or three additional women there to greet us, as the first declared "Oh, this is your wife? She is very beautiful!"

That night we asked if they had any recommendations for dinner. The woman said yes and told us to wait. In a few minutes, her father came riding around the back of the hotel on his scooter. She told us to follow him, that he would drive us over to the restaurant.

This was really surprising to us at the time, but the more time we spent in the country, the more times we had people go way out of their way to help us. Really very generous people.

So we hopped on our bikes and tried to keep up as her father tore ass down the road on his little scooter. About a mile later we pulled into a little roadside restaurant back in the woods near the beach that we probably would not have gone to on our own. He walked in with us and sat down at the outdoor table and shared a beer with us (he spoke no english at all, and us no vietnamese, but we all drank together) before heading back to the hotel while we ate.

Anyway, MORE PHOTOS, LESS WORDS!

Amazingly the next morning the mechanic got a primary chain and in short notice we were buttoned up and on our way. The entire service including parts and labor and getting the part there and whatever was about $40.

And we were on our way!



We were on sort of a secondary highway, so the traffic wasn't nearly so bad and the road wound pleasantly along the ocean:



Around lunch time we rode through an cool fishing village:



Where we stopped for lunch. When we arrived the place was absolutely packed, but we must have caught the tail end of lunch because in about 10 minutes the place was almost empty.



After lunch and a little spin down along the river to see how far the town ran, we hit the road.

Some of the sights along the way:


Families seemed to stop at almost random points along the road for a lunch break. Occasionally people would use turnouts, but most of the time groups would just hang out right at the edge of the road rather than seeking quiter places. The ambient noise level in Vietnam is high. After the first day's ride, once we were used to traffic, we ALWAYS rode with earplugs. Between our screaming bikes and the big trucks and busses, there's a lot of noise out on the roads.


We also passed a lot of little developments like this. There seemed to be a lot of new building going on; some western-style resorts, some vietnamese style resorts. Sometimes the little "town" would be a block long, and sometimes a mile or more.

Anyway, after a relatively short day of riding (about 50 miles with our late start) we arrived in Mui Ne. A much more popular (and, frankly, beautiful) beach town. For the princely sum of $55 (yes, this was a splurge location that we had planned on) we had an awesome room:



on a beautiful beachfront hotel:



Walking around that evening we found a hotel that had a huge collection of vintage bikes out front:



Then we grabbed some dinner and hung out on the beach with a beer before bed.



I think there was also some swimming in a pool that happened at some point. Did I mention that this was not one of the difficult parts of the trip?

DAY 3

Well rested (and good showered!) we load up and head out:



So far we left Saigon 3 days ago and we've covered about 150 miles. Time to cover some distance.



After a beautiful and uneventful afternoon of riding past unbelievably green rice fields:



We stopped for lunch:





And a check in with the Lonely Planet. This was our bible in this country and it worked great. All of the recommendations we went with were great and there were a lot of tips that turned out to be very good advice.



After lunch, the occasional roadside break:



Anjel puts the moves on a water buffalo (?)



And then we get here:



I don't know if this photo captures all of the excitement that I now associate with it. You can see in the photo that dark clouds are on the horizon. But you can also see those mountains in the distance. Those mountains are the first one's we've come to so far; everything else has been almost entirely flat.

We're heading into the hills to the town of Da Lat and what follows is some of the best riding we did the entire trip.

The road is just a basic, narrow mountain road. There was a pretty healthy amount of traffic; don't let the next two photos fool you. These were just the lulls when I felt safe taking a few quick snaps with the camera.




In all, the traffic wasn't terrible and the road was fantastic. It wasn't in the best condition but was just steep enough, and just twisty enough that we were pushing those bikes to their limit. It's the kind of riding you don't get to do much with modern bikes - when you're keeping it pinned in 3rd gear (at maybe 35) knowing that you need to keep as much momentum as possible because 3rd can't pull anything and you want to get around that truck in front of you but 2nd is going to be too low to make it, but if you can just get past him on the straight you can lose him in the corners, because he'll probably get stuck behind another, larger tourist bus...

Anyway, it was a great road and we had a blast... and probably pushed the bikes too hard, but we wouldn't figure that out a couple of days.

Near the summit, or at least the ridge, the road straightened out a bit and we started passing amazing terraced fields.



not the greatest photo, but very different landscape then we'd see the past few days.

We arrived in Da Lat just as it was getting dark. It's a great little down with a lot of french influence. Including this mini Eiffel tower.



We found a room in the recommended Hotel Chau Au-Europa for the much more reasonable price of about $16. Looking out the window:



Total Distance for the day: 150 miles. We left around 9am and arrived around 6pm. 8 hours. 150 miles. Factor in a stop for lunch and the occasional roadside breaks and, yep, we're literally averaging around 25mph. It didn't take any longer than our third day on the road to realize that there was no way we were going to make it to Hanoi and then back down.... but that's fine. One way trip it is!

continued...
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Old 03-10-2011, 10:34 AM   #10
mikegc
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nam: 2 Minsks, 28 days and 1700 miles

In. Haven't been there for many years and look forward to your report.

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Old 03-10-2011, 12:33 PM   #11
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Definitely excited about this one! What an adventure. I hear the north is where it's at.
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Old 03-17-2011, 03:01 AM   #12
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Part 3

The next day we had a leisurely morning with the intent of taking the bikes (without the packs strapped to them!!!) and exploring some of the surrounding countryside we had ridden through on the way in.

This was the view from our room in daylight:



We had what turned out to be the most commonly served version of a western-style breakfast.



I'm not a coffee drinker, but the vietnamese coffee is practically candy there's so much sugar in it. Also, thankfully the French seem to have imparted their love of baguettes to the Vietnamese, and I love bread. Also, the fruit we had in Vietnam was delicious and I bought it by the bagful.



The green one is a grapefruit, but sweeter than pink "breakfast" grapefruit. The bright magenta/green one is a Dragon Fruit which are DELICIOUS. The spiky ones are lychees that are sort of like skinless grapes. I didn't care for them as much but Anjel loved them.

Anyway, this is a motorcycle report, let's get going!

We hopped on the bikes and headed out of town the way we'd come in. We had passed several interesting looking farming villages and a couple large temples that seemed worth checking out.

This was the basic countryside surrounding Dalat. Terraced hills as far as you could see.



As we neared a town we saw a pagoda like temple that seemed pretty cool, so we took one of a handful of roads that seemed to lead in that general direction. It turned out that we chose the wrong one, but we ended up at another temple we hadn't seen from the road.

As we got off the bikes, and walked towards a small temple at the base of a hill a monk happened to walk out and see us. He smiled and we gestured that we were looking around. He gestured us to follow him and led us inside the modest, buddist-style temple, about the size of a 1BR apartment. We looked around, but didn't try taking any pictures as it didn't seem appropriate.

He spoke some english and told us that this was the old temple, and that they were building a new one at the top of the hill. He offered to show it to us and we gladly accepted.



I don't know what I was expecting, but when we climbed up the hill we saw a building much larger than I would have thought for such a small village.



It was large, but seemed pretty simple on the outside.

When we walked in we were absolutely blown away:



The temple was gigantic and gorgeous. There were marble floors and hand painted ceilings and columns



It was actually still under construction and had not opened yet. There were several craftmen laying marble and doing wood work.

It also turned out to be some religion that we'd never heard of - sort of a hybrid of several things, as evidenced by this statue behind the alter.



Looks like you've got a little Budda, JC, Confucius and one other guy. We couldn't exactly work out all the details, but it sounded interesting.

From there we stopped in the next town over (about a mile or two away) for some more fruit, before heading back to Dalat to explore the city.

I'll skip ahead a bit here, to not get too bogged down, but Dalat is definitely an easy place to spend a day or two exploring. A huge marketplace, lots of shops...

DAY 6 - Da Lat to Doc Let
The road out of Da Lat was FANTASTIC. There were other good roads we hit later, but maybe because this was the first it remained our favorite of the trip.

Where the road in to Da Lat was rough and busy this one was as smooth as silk. And had almost NO traffic. (too good to be true?)



The road wound up into gorgeously wooded hills.



Until finally revealing views like this:



As a side note, we came across this sign all over the country



We could never figure out exactly what it meant - and trust me I tried. Uneven pavement? Shifting lanes? Everytime I saw it I'd scope out the road conditions, but could never figure out what I was supposed to be keeping an eye out for.

Anyway, the road kept winding around. Gorgeous!



Loving the ride!



This stretch was probably the most fun, worry free riding we had on the trip.

Around noon we reached a small town and stopped for a bite to eat. More delicious noodle soup



and laughing kids



Several other people pulled up to the restaurant for lunch, and some of them were stripping off plastic ponchos or even rain gear. We couldn't figure out why since the weather was actually gorgeous.

We hit the road and everything became clear. The road out of town started like this:



which turned to:



which turned to:



All of a sudden we were full on off-roading on trails that were equal part ruts and deep silt.

It was AWESOME!

Because of the dust, and my wife's contacts, she led and as I dropped back a bit to avoid her dust cloud. But even once I sped back up to "full speed" to establish the gap, I noticed that she was still pulling away

She was having an awesome time but wasn't seeing what I was seeing, which was her precariously strapped bag bouncing wildly with each bump, testing the strength of her flimsy rear rack. I tried yelling, honking and even dropping back to try to get her attention, but between the noise of the bikes and the dust it was no good. I resigned myself to whatever repair would be necessary, and tried to enjoy the dirt.

Miraculously when we met back up down the road a ways everything was still in one piece - so we eased our pace a bit and continued on.

Our destination for the day was a little beach side town of Doc Let. Anjel had heard about a great little "resort" there (about 10 cabins) run by a French ex-pat that was supposed to be great. Looking at the map, it looked to be about 112 miles from Da Lat - so we figured it would be a pretty easy day.

Remembering that we average about 25mph, 112 miles is about 4 and a half hours. Plus stops for lunch, gas, and map checking makes for a 6 hour day.

Assuming no problems.

About an hour away from Doc Let (20 miles ) Anjel's bike broke down again. Though older, her bike had proven to be the stronger one in the hills, easily outdistancing mine in the climbs. But it was a complete turd when it came to reliability. Also it didn't really have much in the way of brakes, as Anjel found on the way down the hill.

Anyway, we pulled over, dug out our tools and I started digging.



This time the diagnosis was pretty easy: "Your front sprocket fell off."

The large nut holding the front sprocket to the crank had vibrated off and stripped a few of the threads on its way off. With a few banged knuckles and freshly-greased pants I got everything back on and snugged the nut as best I could.

It seemed like a manageable failure and with any luck they'd have some better tools at the resort. I think the strain of our aggressive riding the past 2 days had taken their toll and things were failing. We eased back on our pace a bit (yes, more) and tried to limp into town.

Unfortunately about 5 miles out, in a heavily trafficked section the sprocket came off again. I saw that she had stopped behind me but it looked like we were less than 100 yards our turn, so I waved that I was going to check.

At least that's what I intended the message to be, but my flailing was not as clear as it could have been and Anjel sat on the side of the road, confused, watching me ride away waving.

I came back less than two minutes later to find her sitting at a cafe about 10 feet from where her bike stopped; drinking tea while a group of a locals had already started working on her bike.

"What did you say to them?" I asked.

"Nothing. When I stopped they shrugged their shoulders at me, like 'what's up?' I pointed at the bike and shook my head. They waved me over, pushed my bike over here, this guy got on his phone and told me not to worry, and his wife brought me tea."



(*that road in the background, that's the one I went to go check, the junction is just up the road away to the right in the photo. That's how far up and back I rode to come back and find her already at the cafe.

Thought it was helpful, to be honest, I was actually originally pretty annoyed by all of this. I knew what was wrong with the bike and felt perfectly capable of fixing it myself; I think I was also tired from a long days ride, and the frustration with yet another breakdown.

But we were quickly learning that there was nothing you could do, and to be honest it ended up teaching us a travel lesson that made our lives a lot easier down the road.

It may sound a little cheesy, but we arrived in vietnam after about 6 months on the road - and this was the first country that really forced us to let go of our expectations for what travel was going to be.

There is just no stopping Vietnam. It will pound you into submission. It will be smiling and helping you and offering you tea the entire time, but it was really the first time we were thrown into situations where it was unlikely that any of our plans were going to work as we expected them to, and there was nothing we could do about it, and we were just going to have to live with it. It's an interesting place to reach.

But that realization came later. After about 30 minutes they had the bike buttoned back up. I didn't know what they did, I just stayed out of the way, but we thanked them and paid them for their food and the very reasonable repair bill (a couple bucks, literally) and were on our way.

20 minutes later and we'd arrived at the hotel and were getting settled. I was still grumpy, but it was hard with a view like this:



And a few of these.




We stayed in Doc Let for 4 nights. If my wife were writing this, she would tell you how great it was, and how it was one of her favorite parts of the trip. That's because this was her time there:



I on the other hand landed myself in a self-inflicted pile of this:



Spending much of the 4 days trying to make sure we could actually leave when the time came...
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Old 03-17-2011, 07:55 AM   #13
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You Summed it up!

The temple you visited was for the Cao Dai religion, which follows the teachings of the Buddhas, Sages (Laozi) and the Saints (Jesus and Confucius). I've never been in one of their temples but after seeing your pictures I have to add it to the list of things I must see.

I love this paragraph
"There is just no stopping Vietnam. It will pound you into submission. It will be smiling and helping you and offering you tea the entire time, but it was really the first time we were thrown into situations where it was unlikely that any of our plans were going to work as we expected them to, and there was nothing we could do about it, and we were just going to have to live with it. It's an interesting place to reach."

This is exactly my experience of living here for the past 3 years, and you've said it better than I ever could. It is simply the most frustrating place, with the most frustrating people, who just smile at you and completely f*&* up your life - by being absolutely (and happily) uselessly helpful. When I explode, and oh how often I explode, I invariably meet with the most pleasant smile and tut tut explanation 'but this is how we do it here!'.

Anyway, enjoying your ride report and waiting for your next post!
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Old 03-17-2011, 11:56 AM   #14
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So it wasn't just us then

Here are a couple more photos of the temple from inside:







A detail from one of the carved wooden tables:



Down a hallway:



My wife and I are graphic designers and it's always interesting to see how significantly color palettes can vary in different cultures. Above is a pretty non-western combination of pinks, blues, dark blues and greens

The monument out front:



Another view of the outside of the church:



This was the outside of the old temple.



A closeup of the painting in the doorway reveals a combination of French and Vietnamese



"God and Humanity. Love and Justice" If my French isn't too bad.

And after walking us through the large church the monk walked us over to one of their administrative buildings were he offered us some tea. There were some great posters on the wall including this one:



I'm sure someone else knows better, but each square seemed to be an illustrated principle or parable, 10-commandment style. The photo itself is gigantic and at full size the text is readable, if you know Vietnamese.

There was also this photo which included illustrations for physical fitness / meditative yoga-like exercises.



Again, the fullsize photo should be legible.

Very interesting stuff.
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Old 03-17-2011, 12:07 PM   #15
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Laugh I should have been me

Bastards!!!!!!
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