All posts by KRobison

Hanoi: My Beloved Homebase in the North

I’ve spent a total of about five days in Hanoi, using it as a home base between my time in Halong Bay and Sapa.  I have to say I love this town!  And that’s despite it being so humid and hot that I’m never not sticky with sweat.  There’s just something about this place – it makes me happy!  The amazing owner (Ahn) at the little hotel  (Camellia No. 6) I used as home base also helped; she was both coordinator and friend to me in my time here.

Round 1:  I flew to Hanoi from Hue.  Since Danny (who I met in Nha Trang) was still in town for one more night, we decided to meet up for a good night out.  And it turned out to be an epic night that has not been topped in this town. 

We started by checking out the scene by Hoan Kiem Lake, watching the locals play what seems to be a blend of hacky sack and badminton.  They invited us to play and when we declined then (of course) tried to sell us drugs.  Why is it that I only get this offer when hanging out with guys? We passed, but then were approached by a local who wanted to practice his English.  But he didn’t really need practice, his English was perfect.  When Danny told him his English was good, he simply said “I know.”  Ha!  Needing an exit, we opted to get some food, and ended up at a place overlooking the lake that actually had a good view and good food.  A nice surprise, really.  

The view from the restaurant, Cau Do.
The view from the restaurant, Cau Do.

After dinner I wanted to check out a bar I’d read about, Mao’s Red Lounge.  It was okay, pretty mellow, but with cold beer and decent music it was an acceptable place to chill out.  Bars close pretty early in Hanoi – well, midnight – which came pretty quickly between the beers and the lively conversation.  We decided to wander and went down the street to Local, where a group of obnoxiously loud tourists (Americans, probably) were thankfully leaving.  Unfortunately they were leaving because the bar was also closing.  Not to be deterred, we semi-followed the obnoxious drinkers who were obviously going on to somewhere else. 

But then we passed a place that looked open and chill, and decided to pop in.  The guy at the door gave us the once-over and then waived us in.  They pointed us to the back room, and then had us move to a table that was not within the line of sight of the front door.  I wasn’t quite sure why, but, hey, no questions asked.  So we settled in.  The back room was a little more clubby than the front bar anyway, with a great DJ playing some danceable music (a rarity here).  We were also the only tourists in the place.  Turns out we had happened upon the Funky Buddha, which I’d heard about.

Close to 1:00 the police show, making clear the reason they insisted we sit out of the line of sight of the front door.  So, we were asked to pay our bill, but not asked to leave.  And the DJ cut the music.  The police just hung out, watching the room, for about ten minutes.  It felt like we were all just trying to appear like upstanding citizens . . . “just chilling, not causing any ruckus, officers.”  Then the police just left.  Eventually the music came back on, only quieter, and the place took on the feel of an after party. 

We befriended the locals at the table next to ours and ended up doing shots with them and sharing our shisha.  One of the guys (Tom) turned out to be the owner, and he sat with us for a while, just shooting the shit.  I think he may have just been impressed by the tall, bald white dude, but he was a really nice guy.  He gave us a card for his other (what he called “more commercial”) club, Bank, which looked like a credit card and had his cell number on it where the bank account number would appear.  He told us to text him if we went the next day, but unfortunately neither of us made it there. 

DJs tearing it up, with the owner looking on.
DJs tearing it up, with the owner looking on.
DannyBoy being his silly self.
DannyBoy being his silly self.

Eventually even that party had to come to a close and we headed out. 

Walked out of the Funky Buddha to see this awesome graffiti art on the security door across the way.
Rolled out of the Funky Buddha to see this awesome graffiti art on the security door across the way.

The old quarter was all quite in the middle of the night.  Well, except for the meat delivery, apparently.  We saw a scooter go by carrying freshly slaughtered pigs.  At first we thought we imagined it, but then there was another, and another.  Madly we tried to get a photo of it, and eventually, with the right camera setting, we got one!  And it is one of my proudest photo accomplishments:

And this is how you get fresh meat at the morning market.
And this is how you get fresh meat at the morning market.

Somehow I dragged my hung-over, sleep-deprived self out of bed early the next morning for the city tour I’d so stupidly previously signed up for.  But, I met another American, Amy, and we were fast friends.  Although I ended up opting out of the tour after lunch in favor of a nap, I met up with Amy that night for the water puppet show and dinner.  We also went gallery hunting, but I didn’t see anything I couldn’t live without. 

Tran Quoc Pagoda.  The oldest pagoda in Hanoi.
Tran Quoc Pagoda. The oldest pagoda in Hanoi.
Not sure why this dude is sitting in the mucky water.
Not sure why this dude is sitting in the mucky water.
The changing of the guard, at the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum.
The changing of the guard, at the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum.
Me at Uncle Ho's mausoleum.
Me at Uncle Ho’s mausoleum.
We caught a traditional music performance, at the Temple of Literature.
We caught a traditional music performance, at the Temple of Literature.
Waiting for the water puppet show to start.
Waiting for the water puppet show to start.
Water puppets!
Water puppets!

Round 2: Came back to Hanoi after Halong Bay.  My number one mission was to get a new camera after dropping mine in the water.  So I spent about half a day going to several camera stores and electronics stores trying to find something comparable to the model I had.  I bought the thing about four years ago, but somehow it seems like technology hasn’t improved much.  I had a hard time finding anything with a high speed shutter setting (that’s how I got the amazing photo of the pigs, above, after all; so now I consider it vital).  So, I ended up settling for something that was not as good because that’s all I could find.  Sometimes you need to know when to give up!  

In these few days I had some great food (BBQ pigeon is quite good), checked out the night market, got a decent hair cut (after doing some research on who can cut white people’s hair in this town), and visited the Fine Arts museum and the Ngoc Son Temple.  I also did the street food tour Amy recommended.  It was great – tried some stuff I never would have found on my own and they didn’t stuff us so full that I was miserable.    

Ngoc Son Temple.
Ngoc Son Temple.
Getting my good luck calligraphy (the symbols for peace and contentment).
Getting my good luck calligraphy (the symbols for peace and contentment).
Colorful murals at Ngoc Son temple.
Colorful murals at Ngoc Son temple.
One of our stops on the street food tour, for banh cuon (rice pancakes filled with pork and mushrooms).
One of our stops on the street food tour, for banh cuon (rice pancakes filled with pork and mushrooms).
This restaurant has it's very own Trevi Fountain!
This restaurant has it’s very own Trevi Fountain!
Drinking street! This is where a bunch of bars are in the old quarter.
Drinking street! This is where a bunch of bars are in the old quarter.
Having egg coffee at the end of the street food tour.
Having egg coffee at the end of the street food tour.

Round 3:  My last day in Hanoi before flying out to Hong Kong I came in really early on the night train from Sapa.  By now I’d seen most of what I wanted to in Hanoi.  But I decide to finish up with a couple of the museums I had been wanting to check out – the Women’s Museum and the Ethnology museum.  And the motorbike driver who took me round trip to the Ethnology museum threw in a drive around West Lake, which was fun to see in the evening. 

Zooming past West Lake.
Zooming past West Lake.
I stumbled upon a very lively Lego building contest at the Women's Museum.
I stumbled upon a very lively Lego building contest at the Women’s Museum.

Since I got in at like 5:00 a.m., I wandered down to the lake to see the locals doing there morning walks, bike rides, tai chi, and other calisthenics. Another good thing about being up so early is that I had time for lots of meals throughout my day.  I finally had the fish noodle soup (bun ca) in the alley where my hotel is – so good!  And hit up some of my old favorites (egg coffee, bun bo, sweetend ice coffee, bun cha, spring rolls).   

Hanoi in the morning.
Hanoi in the morning.
Kicking myself for not having bun ca earlier - it's so damn good and about 15 feet from my front door!
Kicking myself for not having bun ca earlier – it’s so damn good and about 15 feet from my front door!

I also just enjoyed being in Hanoi. The old quarter was historically separated into different areas for each specific type of merchant, and it retains some of this division today.  There are still streets dedicated to different types of vendors: separate ones for toys, bedding, silk goods, cell phones, electronics, cameras, grave markers, auto parts, hair accessories . . . you name it!  I had fun figuring out which category of street I was wandering down.  I also love the street food here!  I loved sitting in the little plastic seats on the street, eating my noodles or drinking iced coffee, and watching the world go by.  By just sitting still I saw that some vendors deliver – a motorbike would stop by the street food stall with their daily purchase of coriander or cucumbers.  What service!  These are the little things that make it so special here. 

Gotta look your best to get sold!
Gotta look your best to get sold!
Tagging while hungry again?
Tagging while hungry again?
Hanoi
Mobile storefront.
The daily street market outside my hotel.
The daily street market outside my hotel.

 

Vietnam = peace!
Vietnam = peace!
Is that all there is?
Is that all there is?

I have really loved my time in SE Asia.  Although I felt strangely at home in this part of Asia, I was also often reminded how amazing and different it is.  I was seeing something new and fun . . .  like this on my last morning in Hanoi:

You ordered a bag of ducks?
You ordered a bag of ducks?

I spent my last day soaking it in and honestly feeling a bit sentimental about leaving.  I have come to love Vietnam.  The people are amazing if you approach them with an open heart; a kind smile and patience go a long way when language is a barrier.   Also, the end of my time in Vietnam marks the end of my three month SE Asian journey.  I came here for a much needed break from reality so I could hopefully gain new perspective and reassess my priorities.  And I have done that.  I feel more ready to tackle my future than ever before, even though that future remains uncertain (I am currently homeless, after all).  But I am starting to feel ready to go home – which is good, since I was afraid I never would.  But, well, not quite ready . . . I still have two weeks in Hong Kong and Taiwan to work my way back West! 

I fully intend to come back to Vietnam.  My heart feels full in this place, and it is with a mixture of sadness and excitement that I am moving on.  I wanted to throw a coin in Hoan Kiem Lake to express my intention to return (like at the Trevi fountain in Rome).  But since there are no coins in Vietnamese currency, I threw in what I had on me – the extra key to my luggage lock J  Here’s to next time!

I shall return . . .
I shall return . . .

 

Sapa: A Mountain Escape

Sapa is a great break from the sweaty heat of Hanoi (and most everywhere else in SE Asia, honestly).  I spent a total of five days there, trekking, biking, and relaxing.  I took the night train from Hanoi, timing it just right to get in a nice spa treatment and good meal beforehand (hunted down the cha ca fish I’d heard so much about).  This time I got a soft sleeper, and man what a difference it made – it felt so luxurious!  

Sleeping in style!
Sleeping in style!

There was a young family in my cabin, with a super smiley and adorable kid (probably 3 years old).  So I offered to give the mother my bottom bunk so she could be across from her husband and baby.  I actually prefer the top bunk, so it was win-win.  The only snag was that the A/C was super strong up there!  When I went and changed into a long sleeve shirt the father noticed and apparently trying to be considerate asked the conductor to turn down the air.  It was a sweet gesture but of course I then woke up in pool of sweat in the middle of the night.  Thankfully I was able to successfully pantomime to the conductor that I was dying from the heat, and he turned the air back up.       

Unfortunately no matter how well I sleep on a night train, I’m always groggy the next day.  So my first day in Sapa I just walked around and explored, scheduled my trek to start the next day, and had a really good dinner at the one nice place I could find, the Hill Station.

Sapa Sapa

The square at night - a good gathering place.
The square at night – a good gathering place.
The trekking company I went with.
The trekking company I went with.

I did run into my first inconvenience in traveling in the third world – I couldn’t find contacts solution anywhere in town.  I tried every pharmacy and the local woman at the trekking company (Pen) even tried to help me track some down.  I managed to cobble together enough – between the last little bit I had, eye drops, and solution from my trekking mate – to make it work.  Since I’d had no such problems up to that time I had become reliant on being able to find whatever I needed when I needed it.  It was a good reminder to be a little more forward-thinking.

The next morning I set off on my two day, one night trek north of Sapa, with a homestay in Ta Phin village. It was me and the two Brits (Jay and Roz) I’d actually met in the minibus from Lao Cai (where the train stops) to Sapa.  A minibus that I’d actually forced my way into to avoid being ripped off by the guy who insisted on arranging transportation for me at more than triple the going rate. 

The trek wasn’t too hard, but challenging enough.  Plenty of hills involved.  We walked through lots of rice patties and fields, had some H’mong women befriend us (and of course try to sell us their handicrafts), and saw lots of livestock (pigs, chickens, ducks, water buffalo, etc.).  We eventually made it to our homestay – even though our guide (Pay) got a little lost trying to find it in the village – and were greeted by the matriarch, her two children, and several of her nieces and nephews.  We then basically just hung out and relaxed, snacking on corn on the cob, until it was bath and dinner time. 

I'm trekking!
I’m trekking!
A farmer with his buffalo.
A farmer with his buffalo.

Sapa Sapa

One of the H'mong women who befriended us.
One of the H’mong women who befriended us.
Well, hello there, Mr. Buffalo.  Please don't let me disturb your mud bath!
Well, hello there, Mr. Buffalo. Please don’t let me disturb your mud bath!
I'm in a rice field...what?
I’m in a rice field…what?
Our homestay.  Love the use of bottles for structural support.
Our homestay. Love the use of bottles for structural support.
The kids playing cards.  The owner's daughter seems to be quite the card shark.
The kids playing cards. The owner’s daughter seems to be quite the card shark.

The bath was pretty amazing.  The mother boiled special herbs for hours – a special mix she wouldn’t disclose to us.  The water was grey and smelled amazing.  It was like taking a bath in hot tea!  The bathtub was just a big plastic bucket – big enough to fit in squatting, but not big enough to stretch out in.  I wish I’d gotten a photo of it; Jay actually did and the photos were hilarious since he was clearly too tall to be super comfortable in that bucket.  I spent far too little time in the bath and didn’t even think to bring in soap.  But those herbs have magical properties . . . I actually felt like I had gotten clean and my skin was so soft I didn’t even need lotion. 

Boiling the herbs for our special baths.
Boiling the herbs for our special baths.

Dinner was a huge meal of many different dishes.  The father actually did most of the cooking, stir frying dish after dish on the open flame with expert precision.  Once we sat down, the parents quickly broke out their homemade rice wine for us.  We drank toast after toast, with them goading us that it helps with digestion = drink more, eat more! 

 

Me and Roz sitting by the fire with the kids (a smoky shot).
Me and Roz sitting by the fire with the kids (a smoky shot).

 

Making chips for the white folks.
Making chips for the white folks.

After a day of trekking we were predictably ready to pass out after dinner.  Now, the beds in Asia are all pretty hard, but these take the cake.  They were wooden slat beds with just a ½ inch foam pad thrown on top.  That was when I wished I’d been successful in my repeated attempts to train myself to sleep on my back!  At least I’d had enough rice wine to knock me out.

The next day we had a big breakfast, but the family insisted we sit and have a second meal of village chicken and liver, and more rice wine before departing.  Although being drunk for the trek didn’t see like a good idea, a couple shots of rice wine (always in an even number, mind you) actually hit the spot. 

Some more rice wine for our trek!
Some more rice wine for our trek!
A shot of crew before heading out.
A shot of crew before heading out.

We then hiked to a cave, had lunch in another homestay, and made our way back to the highway where we were picked up and driven the final stretch back to town.  All in all it was a little over 30kms trekked in two days.  We felt like we’d earned ourselves the beers and chips we had when we made it back to town! 

Loving how cool it is in this cave!
Loving how cool it is in this cave!
Sitting on a rock overlooking the valley (me, Jay, and our guide Pay).
Sitting on a rock overlooking the valley (me, Jay, and our guide Pay).
The view from the hilltop.
The view from the hilltop.
A rare white water buffalo!
A rare white water buffalo!
Me and our guide.
Me and our guide.
Testing our balance walking through rice fields.
Testing our balance walking through rice fields.

Sapa Sapa

Pigs and a dish.  Just cause you live in the boonies doesn't mean you can't watch your stories.
Pigs and a dish. Just cause you live in the boonies doesn’t mean you can’t watch your stories.
The cute kids playing in a hammock at our homestay lunch spot.
The cute kids playing in a hammock at our homestay lunch spot.
Yep, I'm in Asia!
Yep, I’m in Asia!
That is one big pot!
That is one big pot!
Working in the fields.
Working in the fields.
Hard to see, but this guy was carrying a pet bird on a stick in the fields.
Hard to see, but this guy was carrying a pet bird on a stick in the fields.

The next day I got a scooter and ventured out to the waterfalls.  Funny enough, this time the scooter didn’t even come with enough gas to get me to the station; but thankfully I was only a block short and could push it the rest of way easily enough.  First stop was Silver Waterfall (Thac Bac), which was right off the road and a quick stop.  I then kept going, passing Love Waterfall (Thac Tinh Yeu; I went on the way back), and driving until I went over the Tram Ton pass, the highest mountain pass in Vietnam.  A snaking two lane highway hugging the mountainside, with intermittent waterfalls peeking out from the lush green foliage.  It really was a beautiful ride!   

Silver Waterfall.
Silver Waterfall.
A view from the road.
A view from the road.
Cruisin' (don't worry, the highway was empty enough that I could pull over to take photos).
Cruisin’ (don’t worry, the highway was empty enough that I could pull over to take photos).
Highway through the clouds.
Highway through the clouds.
Watch out - if the fall doesn't get you, the water will!
Watch out – if the fall doesn’t get you, the water will!
A view of the road over Tram Ton Pass.
A view of the road over Tram Ton Pass.
A view of Tram Ton Pass.
A view of Tram Ton Pass – that bend is the actual highest point.

 

My "hog."
My “hog.”
Pit stop.  Seriously, would you identify this as a pee place?  This is the female version of a urinal.
Pit stop. Seriously, would you identify this as a pee place? This is the female version of a urinal.

With no real plan ahead of time, I decided to just go as far as the next town on the roadside mile markers and have lunch there before turning back.  This was about 40km out of Sapa.  But about 3km from my destination I came to a crossroads that didn’t tell me which way went to this mystery destination.  So I figured I’d come far enough and had lunch at a random place on the side of the road.  I ordered “cóm” and finally figured out that it’s simply fried rice.  I ate my lunch in the company of a stick bug trying his best to camouflage into the carved wood furniture, and the owner’s daughter who was napping in a hammock with her teddy bear.  

 

Lunch break!
Lunch break!

On the way back I did stop at Love Waterfall, it was a bit of a hike back to it.  I also hiked up to the lookout tower, which actually didn’t have as good of views as the road itself offered.  But when I went to leave, I realized I’d lost the scooter key.  I put it in the pocket of my windbreaker and very stupidly didn’t zip the pocket!  So, I knew just what had happened, it fell out who knows where.  The guard helpfully tried to use another key to start the bike, but I knew it was no use.  So I retraced my steps back down to the waterfall, hoping to find the key but also running through the worst case scenario in my head: I at least had the phone number of the rental place (a first!) and would just have to pay whatever kings’ ransom the owner demanded for the lost the key and rescue effort.  But luckily I found my key laying right in the middle of path almost all the way back down at the waterfall.  I felt extremely relieved and really lucky!  I’d been debating whether to remove the now very decayed string bracelet a monk gave me, along with a blessing, during Thai New Year.  But, hey, maybe it is bringing me good luck after all!    

 

At Love Waterfall (after a bit of refreshing rain).
At Love Waterfall (after a bit of refreshing rain).

 

A bell in the observation tower...why not?
A bell in the observation tower…why not?

 

Take me Away to Halong Bay

Halong Bay is a magical place.  Its rocky islands are so picturesque, yet photos don’t do them justice.   I had so many people tell me how amazing the place was that I was afraid I’d end up disappointed.  But the place lives up to the hype.  

I opted for a two-night, three-day stay – one night on the boat and one on Cat Ba Island.  I was really glad I did, because the second night really made the trip. We had a good group on the boat for the first night – an international mix that included folks from the UK, Israel, Chile, and even a group of Americans who were good fun.  I really haven’t met that many Americans in my travels here, so I enjoyed a dose of the energetic and, at times, teasingly combative banter that I’m surrounded by at home.  

On the first day we did the standard tourist loop, seeing a cave, a small beach with a good viewpoint, and getting time to kayak.  They warned us about jellyfish in the bay, and true enough I got a small sting while swimming at the approved beach.  Just a little brush, really, more perplexing than painful.

I'm on a boat!
I’m on a boat!
Views of the bay.
Views of the bay.

Halong Bay

I love that we had boat plants.
I love that we had boat plants.
Halong Bay
Cute little fishing boat.
Chilling on the top deck (Matt and Michael).
Chilling on the top deck (Matt and Michael).

 

Chilling on the boat.
Cheese!!

 

Cave time!
Cave time!

 

The, ur, pointer finger rock formation.
The, err, pointer finger rock formation.

 

Grandpas be warned!
Grandpas be warned!

 

The climb to the viewpoint was rewarding!
The climb to the viewpoint was rewarding!

 

Sweaty but happy.
Sweaty but happy.

Kayaking has never been my strong suit, so I was actually relieved when my kayaking partner, Adrienne, confessed that she is not the strongest paddler.  We made a fun, if not slightly pathetic, team.  We could never quite figure out how to go straight (except in reverse), but coordinated our stroke timing perfectly.  At one point our group found a narrow rock cave that our kayaks could just barely scrape through.  Of course we got a little stuck, but instinctively coordinated our butt skootching perfectly to get ourselves through.  Kayaking was slightly redeemed for me by this excursion.    

Kayaking, slowly but surely.
Kayaking, slowly but surely.
Squeezing through the rocks!
Squeezing through the rocks!
We found a cave!
We found a cave!
The floating village.
The floating village.

Unfortunately when I was getting out of the kayak, my camera fell in the mucky water at the bottom of the boat.  One of those things I saw happening before I stood up, but was too trusting to actually take steps to prevent (like checking whether my camera was securely in its pouch).  I was hoping that a night in a bag of rice might revive it, but even after picking out the rice that got itself lodged in the battery   compartment, my camera wouldn’t move pass the “set date” screen.  At least I didn’t lose any existing photos and would have time for camera shopping once I returned to Hanoi. 

That night we bought a bottle of cheap local whiskey from the woman paddling by in her basket boat; it wasn’t half bad for $6!  While the other Americans pooped out after belting out pop tunes on karaoke (of course the boat had karaoke, it’s a national pastime here), a group of us stayed up drinking and talking under the stars.  We ended up in some deep theoretical discussions spawned by a word association game Matt (the Brit) started.  This is what I love about travelling – it doesn’t matter where people come from, if you take the time to get to what drives them, what they believe, you can quickly feel connected to those who were absolute strangers just hours earlier. 

A basket boat = a travelling convenience store.
A basket boat = a travelling convenience store.
I love a good sunset.
I love a good sunset.

The next day we went to a natural pearl farm, which was interesting for a tourist trap.  Then we had to part ways with the majority of the people on our boat since only me and Matt were doing the two-night trip.  We were joined by two Canadians – Jenny and Jacob – and ended up making a fabulous foursome.  We had a boat all to ourselves that day and became fast friends.  Before lunch we stopped in a little cove where there were no other tourists – the only other boat within sight was a small fishing boat in the distance.  This was a reportedly spot with no jellyfish, so we were able to jump off the boat and swim to a private little white sand beach.  And, shocker, I actually jumped off the second level of the boat!  Anyone who knows me knows I’m afraid of jumping off high places (goes back to me almost failing my childhood swim class because I froze in fear on the end of the diving board).   But after some encouragement (Matt questioning “what could possibly happen?” and Jacob retorting “you could break your neck on the way down…”) I pushed past my fear and went for it.  Of course the anticipation is always worse than the act.  It was no big deal after all.  But I was still proud of myself.  And that secluded swim was an absolute highlight. 

My phone camera isn't so bad, actually.
My phone camera isn’t so bad, actually.

Halong Bay

I was actually surprised at how developed Cat Ba Island is.  I guess I was expecting something that felt more remote.  But it was still small and relatively untouristed (well, at least by whities; lots of Vietnamese tourists about).  While everyone else napped I headed to the beach, since I knew it’d be my last ocean swim for a while.  It was pretty empty on the beach when I arrived, and I did my usual routine of renting a shaded chair (the whitening products are looking more logical by the day here).  The uniformed guard at the attached restaurant asked me where I was from. For some reason I said Canada, because honestly you never know what you’ll get when you say American, and everyone asks, it’s just what they do.  He then invited me to sit with him and his friend for a cup of hot green tea.  Not what I crave on a hot day, but you don’t say no to such things.  He didn’t know much English but we communicated in the way you do in that situation (smiles, nods, etc.).  He wanted me to have a drink, but I communicated that I really wanted a swim and to come talk to me after. 

So I “swam” in the most intense waves I’ve seen anywhere here – not a swim so much as dodging the unrelenting waves (over one, under the next, repeat).  When I dragged myself out of the water, true to his word the guard came over with what looked like a pre-packaged bottle of green tea, but turned out to be homemade rice wine.  He gave me a tea cup full and when I started sipping he corrected me – this was a shooting alcohol, and, man, does it burn!  He then did a shot himself and offered me another, which I politely declined.  He sat for a while then took his leave.  These are the interactions that make me love this country.  Now, would he have been so nice if I’d said I was American?  I’ll never know.

The beach gets really crowded closer to sunset, right about the time I leave.
The beach gets really crowded closer to sunset, right about the time I leave.

That night the four of us went out for drinks, meaning to make it an early night. Yeah, that never works.  We first stopped at a cute sidewalk bar, but were quickly overwhelmed by the electro-pop karaoke blasting from inside.  After a quick spin through an unimpressive night market, we found the seemingly only bar catering to Westerners and staked out a table on the balcony overlooking the harbor and the main street.  We were there for hours, of course.  We traded rounds, and at one point the boys played pool and foosball while me and Jenny got some quality time together.  After many drinks, laughs, and a melon-flavored shisha (yum), we headed out.  Had the best hotdog ever (who knew mayo, chili sauce and cucumbers are good on a hotdog?) and walked towards home. 

After dropping Jenny and Jacob at their place, me and Matt happened upon two empty hammocks in the harbor-front park.  Since Matt had never been in a hammock before, we just had to have a sit.  We ended up lounging for about an hour, chatting and relaxing. I was actually surprised I didn’t see sunrise from that spot, given how comfortable it was and how tired we were by that point.  Regardless, it was a great end to a fun evening. 

The next day we headed back to Hanoi, and I had to say goodbye to the magic that was Halong Bay.  The place is beautiful and special, but the people I met there really made the trip!

Jacob and Jenny, looking adorable as always.
Jacob and Jenny, looking adorable as always.
Me and Matt.  Time to head back to Hanoi.
Me and Matt. Time to head back to Hanoi.

Central Vietnam: A Tale of Two Very Different Ancient Cities. #2: Hue

Hue took some time to grow on me.  Not as obviously beautiful as Hoi An, but it has its charms.  Hue was the old imperial capital, and so of course I had to check out the imperial Citadel.  It was a very hot, sweaty day of biking around, but well worth it. 

Entering the old gated imperial city.
Entering the old gated imperial city.

Hue

Some restored mosaics.
Some restored mosaics.
Turtle hedge!  Why are animal hedges so entertaining?
Turtle hedge! Why are animal hedges so entertaining?
Old imperial city in ruins (Hue Citadel).
Old imperial city in ruins.
So glad I chose to wear my red hat so I could be color coordinated with the palace.  (Hue Citadel)
So glad I chose to wear my red hat so I could be color coordinated with the palace.

Hue

I love the effort that went into holding up this tree.
I love the effort that went into holding up this tree.

I saw the weirdest squat toilet yet in a coffee shop I ended up in for lunch – just a tile floor with two raised piles of tile to act as food beds.  Just pee on the floor and rinse it away.  The variety of toilets in Asia is quite entertaining.  I also spent time wandering around (where I was often asked by locals to sit with them to practice their English), and drinking at the DMZ bar (mostly with a new friend, Will). 

Scenes around Hue.
Scenes around Hue.

Hue

Fun graffiti?  Of course I need to stop by junker bike to take a photo.
Fun graffiti? Of course I need to stop by junker bike to take a photo.
Riding by the river.
Riding by the river.
Thien Mu Pagoda.
Thien Mu Pagoda.
Yep, that's real hair on that life-sized statue.
Yep, that’s real hair on that life-sized statue.
Trying yet another kind of light Asian beer (at the DMZ bar).
Trying yet another kind of light Asian beer (at the DMZ bar).

After the amazing food I had in Hoi An, and being left to eat rice porridge with mystery meat my first night in town (the Vietnamese eat pretty early so there are not too many late night options), I did some leg work to hunt down the famous imperial Hue cuisine.  Apparently the emperors who lived in Hue refused to eat the same dish twice.  Talk about food snobs!  I found some good stuff but quickly got tired of gelatinous rice cakes, which were everywhere.     

I decided to skip seeing the real DMZ (I decided I had seen enough about the war), and instead go on a day trip to Phong Nha cave.  Somehow I didn’t quite know what I’d gotten myself into since I booked through the hotel without seeing an itinerary.  But as we started to pick up others – who all had their luggage with them since they were not doing this long journey as a day trip – I realized I had signed up for 8+ hours in a van.  Yikes!  I almost aborted the trip, but then figured I had nothing better to do, really, so what the hell.  At least the cave was amazing and well worth the trip. 

The DMZ and the river separating North from South (we just stopped to take photos).
The DMZ and the river separating North from South (we just stopped to take photos).
Waiting for our boat to the cave.
Waiting for our boat to the cave.
Of course the water buffalos love the water.
Of course the water buffalos love the water.
...and so do the kids.
…and so do the kids.
Cruising to the cave.
Cruising to the cave.
The entrance to Phong Nha cave.
The entrance to Phong Nha cave.

Hue

Striking my Asia pose.
Striking my Asia pose.

Hue Hue

On the way back I was the only one in the van (i.e., the only one dumb enough to do the round trip in one day) and was trying to sleep to pass the time.  The guide asked if it was okay if we picked up his friend and gave her a ride to the university.  Yeah, sure, fine.  The excitement came when we dropped her off at the university, which is over an hour outside of town.  Some locals begged the guide to let them ride into town with us since their bus reportedly was really late and nowhere to be seen.  At first he agreed to take two people, but then we added another five.  It was near mayhem as they all piled into the van with their various baskets and bags. The guide seemed to have been ambushed and was a bit beside himself with this situation. It somehow reminded me a clown car at the moment.  Then the locals started chatting excitedly and it was really lively.  I was a bit groggy from my nap, but curious to see where this situation would go.  But then my guide shushed them like school children and the rest of the ride was quiet and uneventful.  I think he really just wanted a nap himself.

A highlight in Hue was the motorbike tour I took with Thinh, who Will recommended to me.  He took me around to a couple of tombs, to the Japanese Bridge, and best of all to the monastery where he himself studied for eleven years.  We caught the monks eating lunch, which means we saw the elaborate prayers they do over their food before eating.  It was about twenty minutes of praying and chanting.  Their ability to do that while hungry proves their patience.  Thinh is a devote Zen Buddhist and eagar to share his wisdom.  He was very excited that I was born in the year of the snake, since he said it’s a lucky match with his water buffalo.  Since we made it through the day in one piece, I guess it was a lucky match!  He also basically gave me a fortune to take with me (sitting down to handwrite me a long note), and gave me some spiritual guidance, which was actually just what I needed.  It’s not often that I come away from a tour feeling like I’m in a better place mentally. 

Hue also has a Japanese bridge, but it's out in the boonies.
Hue also has a Japanese bridge, but it’s out in the boonies.
Scenes from the back of a motorbike.
Scenes from the back of a motorbike.

Hue

One of the many cemeteries we sped by.
One of the many cemeteries we sped by.
The monk's breakfast.
The monk’s breakfast.

Hue

The cutest bug I've seen!
The cutest bug I’ve seen!
Tomb of Tu Duc.
Tomb of Tu Duc.
Guarding the tomb.
Guarding the tomb.
Making friends.
Making friends.
I love the ruined parts.
I love the ruined parts.
A view of the tomb of Khai Dinh.
A view of the tomb of Khai Dinh.
Scenes from the Tomb of Khai Dinh.
Scenes from the Tomb of Khai Dinh.
A nice view for a final resting place.
A nice view for a final resting place.
Getting in touch with my dragon side.  According to Thinh I was born on a dragon day, which means I'm fiery (i.e., impatient).
Getting in touch with my dragon side. According to Thinh I was born on a dragon day, which means I’m fiery (i.e., impatient).

Hue

Playing with my reflection.
Playing with my reflection.
Big, happy Buddha.
Big, happy Buddha.
The view from the peace bell, which was a hike up the hill.
The view from the peace bell, which was a hike up the hill.

So while I didn’t fall in love with Hue, I did love the people I spent time with there.  And I learned that there are an uncountable mix of toppings for gelatinous rice cakes…

Hue
Another kind of gelatinous rice cake, this one wrapped in a banana leaf.
Sunset over Hue.
Sunset over Hue. Time to move on…

Central Vietnam: A Tale of Two Very Different Ancient Cities. #1: Hoi An

I visited Hoi An and Hue in the middle of the country.  I was really excited about Hoi An, since I’d heard such good things, and it didn’t disappoint.  Hoi An is very picturesque and instantly won me over.  Hue I did not find as beautiful, but it also has its charm and it did grow on me.

I took the night train from Nha Trang to Hoi An, which I was a little nervous about since I’d only been able to book a “hard sleeper” (6 people to a compartment) and was still feeling pretty nauseous from whatever bug I’d been battling there.  But the locals in my compartment were very sweet (helping me with my bags and getting me safely stowed away in the very top bunk) and Advil PM was my failsafe way to sleep through most of the journey.

Slept very snugly in berth 24.
Slept very snugly in berth 24.

I did arrive a bit groggy, so I spent some quality time at the hotel pool before biking into old town.  I made the novice mistake of going out between 12:00-2:30 and almost melted.  The heat and humidity here is no joke!  But at that time of day, most of the locals are napping so the merchants aren’t putting as much energy into hawking their wares.  So it actually makes for a more relaxing experience.  And, an afternoon shower cures all! 

Scenes around old town.
Scenes around old town.

Hoi An Hoi An

Agent Shell.
Agent Shell.

Hoi An Hoi An

The original banana seat bike?
The original banana seat bike?
I was so shocked to see garbage sorting that I had to take a photo.  It's usually hard enough to find a trash can in Asia, let alone designated ones.
I was so shocked to see garbage sorting that I had to take a photo. It’s usually hard enough to find a trash can in Asia, let alone designated ones.
Strolling the alleyways of old town.
Strolling the alleyways of old town.
Birds are a big deal here.
Birds are a big deal here.

Revived, I had a great dinner and even caught some of the parade for the Full Moon celebration.  Apparently every month the locals have a parade and send floating candles down the river representing their wishes.  Buddhists love their celebrations! 

Buddha sighting!
Buddha sighting!

Hoi An

The parade continued on the river.
The parade continued on the river.
Make a wish!
Make a wish!
The Japanese bridge and the wishing candles.
The Japanese bridge and the wishing candles.
So many lanterns to chose from!
So many lanterns to chose from!
The river front at night.
The river front at night.

The next day I did the Taste of Hoi An food tour that I’d heard so much about – and it was amazing!  It’s run by an expat Aussie (Neville) who is a bundle of infectious energy and excitement.  From the start I knew he meant business since he set my pick-up time for 7:05 a.m. – standard operating procedure for local-run tours is to give a rounded time (say 7:00 or 7:30) and then show up at least 30 minutes late.  On the tour we tried 44 dishes, and by the end I really couldn’t safely hold down even one more bite.  But spending the day sharing some exciting new cuisine with other foodies snapped me right out of my travel fatigue and made me excited about being in Vietnam again – yay!

It’s amazing how fresh all the food is here.  They slaughter the meat the morning it’s sold and sell out by about noon.  The market vendors have their regular customers, so they know just how much meat they’ll need to bring to sell in a day.  Like everywhere in Asia, the fish and small animals are kept alive as long as possible.  So it’s pretty common to see the live chickens hanging off the side of a scooter zooming across town.  They don’t use refrigeration — it’s considered dirty (except for drinks, thankfully).  And unlike Myanmar where the meat was thick with flies in the market, there really aren’t many flies in a Vietnamese market since there is nothing rotten for them to flock to. 

This all means that there is not the same imposed separation between animal and meat like there is in the West, where we buy our slabs of meat wrapped in plastic, never having to look into the beady eyes of the chicken from which it came.  At times the empathy I fell for even the live fish in the market makes me consider turning vegetarian.  But I’m not ready to go there just yet!  Most of the time I don’t quite know what I’m getting in a restaurant (I’ve end up with a hell of a lot of noodle soup) so trying to go veggie while travelling would be more annoying than anything.

Ice cream at 9:00 a.m.?  Yep, that's how we roll on the food tour.
Ice cream at 9:00 a.m.? Yep, that’s how we roll on the food tour.
Fresh meat!
Fresh meat!
One of the locals our guide made us pose with.  She colored her teeth black on purpose (reportedly it was a trend many years ago).
One of the locals our guide made us pose with. She colored her teeth black on purpose (reportedly it was a trend many years ago).
A former solder for Saigon (i.e., someone who actually likes Americans).
A former solder for Saigon (i.e., someone who actually likes Americans).
She really is the queen!
She really is the queen!

Trying to work off some of the food indulgence I’d subjected myself to, I rode out to the beach in the afternoon.  Hoi An is not known for its beach, but it is really nice.  The afternoon storm clouds actually materialized into rain (they usually don’t) and so I ducked under a tarp strung up between some palm trees and sheltering a group of plastic tables and chairs, and shared a beer with a random Canadian who was also escaping the rain.  The woman who owned the restaurant was very sweet and really wanted me to eat something – I had a hard time explaining that I was still stuffed from the morning. 

The next day I decided to get a scooter and go out to the My Son ruins (another UNESCO world heritage site down!).  I found the ruins easily enough, but on the way back I took a wrong turn and went a bit out of my way.  I realize the road didn’t look familiar so I stopped to ask some locals for directions.  Of course they didn’t speak any English so I basically said “Hoi An?” and pointed the way I was going.  They conferred among themselves and then gave me a long explanation in Vietnamese.  I gave the universal shoulder shrug to show I didn’t understand and repeated my simplified question plus hand gesture.  I finally got a shake of the head to tell me I was in fact going the wrong way.  So I pointed back the way I’d come and motioned for straight and then curve right, and got a nod “yes.”  It’s amazing how much you can get by with hand gestures.  Language barrier, what language barrier? 

The ruins at My Son.
The ruins at My Son.

Hoi An Hoi An

A shady path is a beautiful thing.
A shady path is a beautiful thing.

I’d had a lofty goal of going to the marble mountains that day as well, but opted to just hang out at the beach since I’d already spent so much time scootering around and getting lost.  So I drove North a bit from Hoi An and found “Hidden Beach” – a spot I wish I’d found earlier.  It’s basically two families who live on this stretch of amazingly beautiful beach and have nice chairs and umbrellas set up.  I got a beautiful fruit plate, a fresh coconut, and a peaceful place to take an afternoon nap.  The owner also had me try some green mango from her tree, with fish sauce+sugar+chilies to dip it in.  It was amazingly refreshing!  She was very sweet and made sure to check in on me and chat me up periodically. 

Chilling in my own private paradise at Hidden Beach.
Chilling in my own private paradise at Hidden Beach (on China Beach).
Basket boats on China Beach.
Basket boats on China Beach.
I watched this guy dig a hole, then bury himself in it and just sit there.  I have no idea why.
I watched this guy dig a hole, then bury himself in it and just sit there. I have no idea why.

Hoi An

I also took a snorkel trip to the Cham Islands and met some fun people on the boat (Katherine, Edwina, and Cody – I now have a whole list of new bands to check out since Cody let me pump him for information, thanks, Cody!).  The islands are beautiful and the time on the boat was relaxing.  But at our first stop we saw a huge jelly fish in the water – big enough to see clearly from the second level of the boat – and there were more where that came from.  I went in the water anyway and avoided getting stung, but spent most of my time watching out for and dodging jelly fish as opposed to looking at the fishies.  I did see a cool stripy water snake in the shallows, and was relieved when it had no interest in coming to say hello!

The Cham Islands.
The Cham Islands.

Hoi An Hoi An

I was a bit sad to leave Hoi An, but the pit stop for another banh me from the Banh Me Queen and the amazingly beautiful train ride up to Hue made it all okay. 

The view from the train.  Can you believe the locals draw the curtains (they'd rather hide from the sun than see the view).
The view from the train. Can you believe the locals draw the curtains (they’d rather hide from the sun than see the view).

Hoi An Hoi An

Finishing up South Vietnam: from the Mountains to the Sea

The Mountains: Dalat

A smaller town nestled in the mountains, Dalat was a picturesque break from the heat.  On my first morning I was welcomed by a cold rain that felt entirely foreign by this point.  But after the morning rain cleared, I decided to get back in the saddle and explore around town on motorbike.  Somehow I felt more comfortable than ever on the bike, like I finally got it – yay!  I got lost in the winding streets through town, but eventually found my way to The Crazy House – a never-ending construction project that is part hotel, part tourist attraction.  There are so many stairways snaking up and down the outside of the buildings it’s hard to figure out if you’ve walked them all (which of course is the goal, right?).  I also wandered through the adorable city flower garden (complete with an animal hedge garden that included a rather ferocious looking bear), saw the view from the cable car viewpoint (the cars weren’t running yet and it was creepily abandoned when I showed up), and did a little lap outside of town.  It’s amazing how quickly you can get out into nature around Dalat.

 

The crazy house.
The crazy house.
On top of the crazy house!
On top of the crazy house!
The bear room at the crazy house.
The bear room at the crazy house.
I've never seen a dragon-shaped hedge before.
I’ve never seen a dragon-shaped hedge before.
A rather vicious looking bear hedge.
A rather vicious looking bear hedge.
I love all bears.
I love all bears.
A view from the road outside of town.
A view from the road outside of town.
A view over the city.
A view over the city.
Getting ready to celebrate Buddha's birthday!
Getting ready to celebrate Buddha’s birthday!
Just in case I forgot what I ordered...
Just in case I forgot what I ordered…

After making my way over a really dusty dirt/gravel road, I saw the logic in the masks everyone wears when riding a motorbike.  So I picked one up when stopping for a drink at a roadside kiosk.  Later I learned that the masks are really meant to guard from the sun (these people are obsessed with staying white, hence the challenge in finding a lotion, deodorant, or soap that is not a “whitening” product).  Well, hey, a protector from the sun, wind, and dust?!!  Count me in!

When in Vietnam, do as the Vietnamese do.
When in Vietnam, do as the Vietnamese do.

The next day I did the “secret tour” run through my hotel – and it was the highlight of my time in Dalat.  There were only five of us on the tour (plus the guide and his cousin), and again we rode motorbikes the whole day.  That ride was like a litmus test for how good of a rider you are.  Good thing I was feeling really comfortable at this point, because we started out on a winding mountain “road” that was under construction for a 10km stretch.  No real road to speak of, actually, just soft dirt and gravel, no asphalt in sight, where we spent our time carefully dodging construction equipment in the middle of its operation grading and paving the road.  But with a little patience and balance, I made it through.  The roads got marginally better after that, but between the country roads full of pothole-ponds and the crazy traffic on the curvy road coming back into town (I saw two near head-on collisions), it was a ride I was proud to have gotten through in one piece!

Stopping to take in the view!
Stopping to take in the view!

DSC06149

Endless rice fields.
Endless rice fields.
Feeling accomplished after a tough ride.
Feeling accomplished after a tough ride.

Apart from the challenging riding, the tour included a visit to a cricket farm, where we got to try some crispy fried crickets.  They were crunchy and spicy and really good!  We also saw a silk making factory (yep they eat the dead silk worms too), a local market, a very wet waterfall, and ended up at our guide’s childhood village to have lunch at his parents’ house (complete with a “fruit lesson” where we got to try a few of the fruits I’d seen in the markets and been curious about – like custard apples…Google it, it’s weird looking but so good!).

All the paper goods you can burn to send up to your loved ones in heaven.
All the paper goods you can burn to send up to your loved ones in heaven.
Breeding crickets!
So many crickets. These ones aren’t quite big enough to eat yet.
Crispy fried crickets!
Crispy fried crickets with a little chili sauce.
Eating crickets - yum!
Eating crickets – yum!
Spinning the silk.
Spinning the silk.
The silk worms. Now they will become food (waste no, want not).
The silk worms. Now they will become food (waste no, want not).

We then ventured out to meet some of the local village folk.  They actually don’t speak Vietnamese, but one of the over 50 dialects still spoken in Vietnam.  Only the kids go to school to learn the country’s universal language.  But since our guide grew up there, he could communicate with them.  We were invited into the home of an old woman who was home with her two grown daughters and their friend.  Unfortunately the Vietnamese government won’t let you take photos of the village folks, but these ladies were so lively and hilarious that they are burned into my memory.  One daughter started by asking our guide how he found the whitest white folks she’s ever seen – ha! That day the ladies had found a rare vegetable growing wild in the fields and were really excited about it – they immediately had us try the spicy cooked puree they had made with it.  They pulled out every bench and stool they had and asked us to sit with them for a while.  The guide then proceeded to ask them about life in the village and their culture (including how they buy husbands since the women run the show there).  It was an amazing scene.  Our guide would ask a question and there would be a cacophony of noise as all the women talked at once (so excitedly they were practically shouting), while simultaneously gesticulating with their hands for emphasis.  When the noise died down our guide would pass on a seemingly simplified version of what they said. It was a hilarious scene.

Our guide asked them about their typical food, and they produced a gourd with rice porridge in it (that can keep for days) and a piece of bamboo with a mashed up mixture of ginger, who knows what else, and meat (rat meat, they said, from the big rats they find on the farm).  The friend then proceeded to show us how they eat it – pouring some porridge into her mouth and drinking down the watery part to leave the rice (she opened her mouth and stuck out her tongue to show us this) and then taking a small bite of the ginger-meat mixture to be chewed along with the remaining rice.  After her demonstration she pointed to me, indicating that it was my turn.  And how could I refuse?  So she poured the porridge in my mouth (okay, plain tasting and a bit milky) and I did as she had, trying to take the smallest bit of the rat mixture that I could politely get away with.  And you know, it wasn’t bad!  The meat mostly tasted like ginger, which is probably how it can stay good so long while stored at room temperature.  She then went around to the rest of the group, so everyone got to try this local cuisine.

Our guide also convinced the old woman to give us a weaving demonstration.  She used the tools that had belonged to her grandmother(!) to remove the seeds from the cotton and spin the cotton into thread.  She also showed us the natural dyes they use to color the thread.  Then another of her daughters turned up and showed us how they weave their traditional skirts, worn at weddings and on holidays (it’s really a long piece of fabric that is simply wrapped around to make a skirt).  After that we needed to get back to town but they didn’t want us to leave. They made us each take home one of the skirts they’d made (of course we gave them something for it, although the old woman didn’t want our money).  These were the most generous people I’ve ever encountered – they have so little but are so quick to share what little they do have.

After getting doused with some rain, it was a cold ride home (why did I leave my poncho at the hotel?).  I noticed that my gas had been on empty for a while and I mentioned this to our guide when he stopped to show us how they grow the local mushrooms.  But he said I’d be fine and even looked in my gas tank and saw gas there, so no worries . . . yeah, only 60km to home, nbd.  We ended up on the same winding mountain road I’d ridden the day before for the last stretch into town, but now it was evening rush hour so there were crazy waves of traffic (buses drivers are the craziest drivers, btw).  I was at the end of our caravan and given the traffic was not super close to the next couple in our group.  I felt my bike losing power and, yep, I ran out of gas on an uphill curve in the middle of crazy traffic.  Thankfully I was already all the way over to the right.  I thought it might be the starter, since I’d had issues with it earlier in the day.  But after unsuccessfully trying to restart the bike, I realized I really was stuck.  And I had no idea if or when the group would realize I was not with them.  So I decided I would wait for a lull in the rush of traffic, push the bike to where I could get it off the road, and then try to hitch back into town, since I knew I was close.  So I moved the bike up the hill and got it all locked up, but as soon as I was contemplating how to get someone to stop (since up to this point no one had stopped to help) back comes the guide’s cousin to help me.  He had me wait as he went to get gas (which was an incredibly fast process) and came riding back with green gas in a clear plastic bag – they put everything in plastic bags here!  He declared himself my hero and we were off.

Storm coming in.
Storm coming in.
A very noisy bug!
A very noisy bug!

That night our tour included a “secret dinner” at a local’s restaurant that I’d never know how to order in without our local guide.  We agreed to let the guide order for us, and of course he used this opportunity to have us try some weird stuff.  Apart from the usual seafood and veggies, we had goat (which at first he said was cat and then said, no, they were actually already out of cat, sorry), and water snake, and then (gulp – and I hesitate to even admit this) dog.  Yes, dog; and yes, I was pissed.  He told us it was chicken, but it obviously wasn’t.  It didn’t taste like anything I’d had before and was too dark.  He then refused to tell us what it was until we’d eaten it, and only then showed us a picture of the carcass from down in the kitchen.  I was so upset.

Yeah, it’s gross, but they eat dog here.  They even eat their own pets sometimes, and dogs are stolen to be sold all the time (it now made sense why there was only a Chihuahua at our guide’s parents’ house – it was the only dog too small to not be worth stealing for food).  Reportedly dog meat is “expensive” (so you’d never be served it accidently at a restaurant, “rest assured”) – but seeing as our whole meal was only $6/person, I don’t think we agree on what expensive is.  For those who are wondering what it tastes like (you sickos), well I can’t definitively say I know.  It was spicy (but who knows if that was spice or the meat itself), pretty fatty (but it was ground meat), a bit gamey – all in all not something I’d seek out (thankfully).  I’m chalking this up to experiencing a different culture and asking Millie to forgive me.  Unfortunately I can’t look at the kept dogs I see here quite the same any more.

A bit blurry, but that's our guide singing his heart out up there.  I also find it hilarious that my drink came with a straw.
A bit blurry, but that’s our guide singing his heart out up there. I also find it hilarious that my drink came with a straw.

The Sea: Nha Trang

Nha Trang reminds me of the beaches in Phuket – nice beach (cool water, good drop off, waves strong enough to pummel me like I remember from childhood), but a bit too touristy and with a crazy level of catering to Russians (all the signs, menus, and the only information on the goods in the pharmacy were in Russian).  I was also a sick for most of my time there and had a bit of travel fatigue, so Nha Trang was really not my favorite place.

Some views out the bus window.
Some views out the bus window.
Some amazing scenery going by.
Some amazing scenery going by.

Nha Trang

Yep, this is where you'll find me on a bus - by the window, listening to spotify, and gawking at the view.
Yep, this is where you’ll find me on a bus – by the window, listening to spotify, and gawking at the view.

But, I did get in some good swimming (even a night swim), checked out some of the nightlife, and met some interesting people (more Brits taking the motorcycle journey up the coast, Wayne and Danny).  And when I finally felt well enough I got a bike and motored around a bit – it really is a beautiful place once you get out of the tourist quarter.  My only annoyance is again I ran out of gas.  They always rent you motorbikes on empty, and the guys who gave me the bike said there was a gas station out by the Cham ruins where I was headed.  But I didn’t make it.  A local woman stopped to help me out, and drove me one block to get some gas in a bottle from a shopkeeper at double the standard price, then demanded that I also pay her for her trouble.  At first I thought she was just being nice, but I can’t say I was the least bit surprised by how that all unfolded.  After she took off, I asked the guy working at the store my bike had died in front of where an actual gas station was – turns out I was only one block shy of it!  Well, at least I made that woman’s day – she made some easy money from this white girl.

 

Sunset, my favorite!
Sunset, my favorite!
Baby Buddha!  Apparently it was Buddha's birthday.
Baby Buddha! Apparently it was Buddha’s birthday.

 

Shisha and beers...Why Not!?!
Shisha and beers…Why Not!?!

 

The Cham Towers right outside of town.
The Cham Towers right outside of town.

 

So many fishing boats!
So many fishing boats!

 

Just 15km from town and it's a different world.
Just 15km from town and it’s a different world.

 

The curvy road up the coast.
The curvy road up the coast.

 

Hard not to just look at the view instead of watching the road.
Hard not to just look at the view instead of watching the road.

 

Nice view!
View from the temple hill.

 

That's a big Buddha!
That’s a big Buddha!

 

An Intro to Vietnam: Louder, Faster, Harsher

Vietnam is louder and crazier than the other places I’ve been in SE Asia.  The traffic is intense, there is a constant din of noise, and at times walking down the street feels like running the gauntlet of vendors who all want to sell you something you don’t need or want.  And the people are not as initially warm and welcoming as I’ve found elsewhere.  But despite that first impression, I’ve warmed up to the place!  It took a period of adjustment and some patience, but it was worth it.

My first impression of Vietnam was not the best.  I had been warned about the locals hustling tourists, and I figured that yeah, I’d seen it before – the tuk driver in Thailand who didn’t take us where we agreed but wouldn’t go any further, the need to bargain down from the white folks’ price to something reasonable anywhere you go – but I actually was a bit put off by feeling like a target from the get-go here. 

I think there are taxi drivers that target tourists coming off buses from out of town.  Case in point, I got off the bus from Phnom Penh in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and was (as usual) accosted by taxi drivers.  I knew I was very close to my hotel, since I have Google maps on my phone.  I got a relatively cheap Asia phone in Cambodia so I could have an unlocked device to use here that I wouldn’t care too much about losing – a really great decision!  I told the cabbie (the one who wouldn’t go away, there’s always that one) that I didn’t need a cab, I could walk.  He assured me it would take me 40 minutes to get to where I was going . . . yeah, right.  So I asked how much (number one rule: always agree on the price beforehand), but he insisted on using the meter.  I told him I didn’t want the meter, because I fully expected him to drive me in circles.  He understood all this and then assured me that, no he wouldn’t do such a thing . . . well, he did just that.  After he drove around for a while and then “missed” the turn, I told him to just pull over – with GPS I could see just how I was being screwed and just how I could get myself where I needed to go.  Of course by this time he was at the wrong end of the one-way street my hotel was on.  So, that 5 minute cab ride ended up costing me $12 dollars (keep in mind a 30 minute ride to the airport is $6 here, so that’s nowhere near a fair price), and I still had to wander around to find my hotel.  I made sure to thank him for his wonderful welcome to Vietnam!   

Of course being here you have to accept that you’re a huge walking target and that many of the locals will try to get a few extra dollars from you at every turn, especially in the more touristy places.  It can get annoying, but I’ve decided that I can’t let that taint my experience.  I’ve now come to expect it and find it more comical than frustrating.   

I really enjoyed HCMC.  There is not a ton of touristy things to see here, but the city is huge and its energy is palpable.  I loved riding around on the back of motorbikes in the crazy swirl of traffic.  At first the traffic seems chaotic, but then it starts to make sense.  The Vietnamese drive on the right side of the road, like at home (and actually wear helmets!), but there is where the similarities end.  Crosswalks and traffic lights are suggestions; no one is ever going to stop to let you cross the street.  You can try find a lull before crossing (or not) and whatever you do, when you do step out into traffic, walk at the same pace across the street to let the motorists calculate how to avoid hitting you.  And they will.  Sometimes they drive on the wrong side of the road – because it’s easier to do that and go across traffic when there’s a gap than cut directly across.  This is really necessary since traffic doesn’t always stop here (apart from at stoplights at big intersections), but often flows through endless roundabouts (and there are no four way stops at the intersections either).  But it all works!  There is no road rage here.  It’s all about going with the flow and finding your way through the gaps.  And everyone seems to get where they’re going just fine.  Of course there are the few who try to go faster than the speed of traffic, and those are the ones who cause issues (just like at home). 

I spent a good amount of time walking around to see the “sights” and hunted out some good local food.  District One is where most of the tourists hang out, and every night Bui Vien Street transforms into a makeshift sidewalk café.  The business owners roll out plastic tarps to cover the sidewalk and everyone buys cheap beer and street food and sits on the sidewalk late into the night.  It’s a fun scene and some great people watching. 

Drinking Beer Saigon on the street in Saigon.  Perfection!
Drinking Beer Saigon on the street in Saigon. Perfection!
Snazzy car!  (at the HCMC Museum)
Snazzy car! (at the HCMC Museum)
I've seen so many cute animal trash bins, is that supposed to make you more likely to use them?  (at the War Remnants museum)
I’ve seen so many cute animal trash bins, is that supposed to make you more likely to use them? (at the War Remnants museum)
The post office.
The post office.

HCMC

Had to take a photo of the CA time clock!  (In the old post office)
Had to take a photo of the CA time clock! (In the old post office)
So much amazingly soft grass, but for some reason no one was sitting on it (I got the sense it was not allowed).
So much amazingly soft grass, but for some reason no one was sitting on it (I got the sense it was not allowed).
Some cool statues in a pretty park I wandered into.
Some cool statues in a pretty park I wandered into.

I met a fun Brit my first night in town (Duncan) and we did a lot of drinking together over the following days.  At one point I watched as he suffered through a never-ending game of pool with a scrawny local who seemed strung-out on one of the many drugs offered for sale outside the Circle K (they’d jump from offering you weed to heroine in a microsecond).  At that point I was very grateful that my own atrocious pool skills disqualified me from this matchup.  I would say was discussed, and he’d likely say we argued over, all manner of things – including how odd it is that the Vietnamese have turned the Vietnam War (ahem, the “American War”) into such a tourist attraction. I still opted to see the War Remnants Museum and the Cu Chi Tunnels, because I did want to see the other side of the story we’ve been fed as Americans.  But as I saw photo after photo of the gruesome scenes of war, I came to see Duncan’s point about not spending my time dwelling on death.  

Setting off on a motorbike adventure with Duncan .
Setting off on a motorbike adventure with Duncan .
Exploring outside District One.
Exploring outside District One.
We decided to stop for something to eat, turned out to be rice porridge with dried fish and other fixings. Delish!
We decided to stop for something to eat, turned out to be rice porridge with dried fish and other fixings. Delish!
It's a family affair - love the baby in the mask.
It’s a family affair – love the baby in the mask.
Sunset happy hour.
Sunset happy hour.
The view from the top!
The view from the top!
I just loved the scene of these workers fixing the crazy thick power lines.
I just loved the scene of these workers fixing the crazy thick power lines.
Visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels - down we go!
Visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels – down we go!

Cambodia in Two Parts, Part II: Phnom Penh

My little hotel in Battambang booked me on a locals’ bus to Phnom Penh – for the first time I was the only tourist!  I was just fine with that, it was air conditioned and we didn’t make a ton of stops.  Regardless it took us about 7 hours to go the 160 miles.  I’ve now learned to add two hours on to any time estimate given for ground travel in SE Asia!  I didn’t mind the length of the trip too much, and we were treated to an amazing thunder storm in the last couple of hours.  The rain pounded down in sheets and the thunder struck in waves of multiple quick flashes – nothing like the wimpy storms we have in California!  The funniest part of the bus ride was the Cambodian music videos blasting over the A/V system.  My spotify selections playing in my ears couldn’t drown it out completely, so I ended up listening to an interesting mash-up (I found that Disclosure actually pairs pretty well with Cambodian pop).

On her way home from school.  Scenes out the bus window (on the way to PP).
On her way home from school. Scenes out the bus window (on the way to PP).

Getting into Phnom Penh I forgot that I’d mentally settled on a place to stay during my online searches, but didn’t make a reservation to have the information at hand after the long journey.  So I went to what Lonely Planet called “The Golden Mile” since they made it sound promising.  It was far from it (thereby cementing my distrust of the guide).  After checking out a few places and seeing they were all equally crappy, I settled on the Golden Gate hotel, since it was a nod to SF and the young guys at the front desk were really friendly and spoke very good English (the first time in a long time I wasn’t speaking simplified English for the benefit of my local listener).  They helped me get my Vietnam visa before the consulate closed for a few days for a national Vietnamese holiday and pointed me to a good dinner spot.  I can stand one night about anywhere, so no biggie. 

The next day I changed to the place I originally wanted to stay – the Artist Guesthouse.  It is a real gem.  Friendly staff, cute modern room, and walking distance to some good restaurants and bars.  Although there’s not too much to “see” in Phnom Penh I really liked the vibe there.  While some told me not to bother giving it much time, I was glad I had a few days to bum around.  The city is busy enough but not too crazy, has a nice riverfront, some good food, and a decent nightlife. 

Cows, chickens, and pigs agree...
Cows, chickens, and pigs agree…
Outside the royal palace. I made a wrong turn and had to walk around the whole thing to find the one entrance (typical :) ).
Outside the royal palace. I made a wrong turn and had to walk around the whole thing to find the one entrance (typical 🙂 ).
Lions protect the entrance to the palace.
Lions protect the entrance to the palace.
A different day, a different color. Traditional court dress.
A different day, a different color. Traditional court dress.
Fables in fresco.
Fables in fresco.

I travelled by foot, car, tuk tuk, motorcycle taxi, and even cyclo. Getting around was so easy!  Actually sometimes there were too many tuk tuks waiting to take you around (calling out to you everywhere “tuk tuk, tuk tuk”?).  I went back and forth between saying “no thanks” and just ignoring them to create some peace (because sometimes any response, even a “no,” got me a long list of question “where you going…where you going tomorrow, you need driver…you want to see killing fields…?”).  But if I wasn’t walking, I’d usually opt for the motorcycle taxi, since they charge you 1/3 the price and were less pushy.  Most of the time it’s very efficient getting around this way, unless of course the moto driver claims to know where you want to go when he really doesn’t.  I had one ride where we had to stop twice to ask directions from other drivers waiting on the side of the street – this is when having access to Google maps really saves you!  You’ll eventually find someone who can read the map or, if the data is working well enough, you can actually try to communicate to the driver where to go (which also doesn’t always work)!  But not being on any real schedule, I found that adventure pretty entertaining.  And since I always agree on a flat price first, there is no real down side to getting a free tour of the city.     

I also love how much of life is lived on the street here.  Even in a bigger city like Phnom Penh, it was common to see the sidewalks being used from everything from a cobbler’s workspace to a barber shop. The sidewalks are not for walking here, they’re for eating, parking, lounging, plying your trade, and just about anything else you can think of.  This is why most of the time you end up walking in the street, trusting that you won’t get run over by the many variety of wheeled vehicles zooming about.

Cool older building in Phnom Penh
Cool older building I saw when wandering around.
Scenes around PP.
Colorful apartment buildings.
Scene around town.
The standard number of power lines in Asia.
And old mansion.
An old mansion right by my hotel; I love the painted iron gate.
The Independence Memorial in the evening.
The Independence Memorial in the evening.
...and at night.
…and at night.

I met several French ex-pats living in PP.  One place I stumbled into was owned by a French guy who’d married a local and had three adorable young kids running around.  There was so much love and joy in that little bar that it felt right to just hangout for a while.  Funny enough, when I asked them what to see on my last day in PP, neither of them could tell me – they don’t get out to tour, they said.  I realized that they had everything they needed just where they were.  They were happy.  And that isn’t something I see every day.

I joined up with the Aussies I’d met in Battambang to visit the killing fields and the old high school converted into a prison by Pol Pot (Tuol Sleng Museum or S-21).  It was a very hard day.  On my two-day cruise on the Mekong in Laos, I read a book by a woman who was a child living in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge took over (First They Killed My Father, Loung Ung).  It gave me some good background on what it was like to live through that time and made me feel a bit more prepared for visiting these sites.   But really what can prepare you for seeing the evidence of mass genocide?  Nothing.

The memorial stupa at the killing fields outside Phnom Penh.
The memorial stupa at the killing fields outside Phnom Penh.
Every victim was photographed and accounted for.  There are hundreds of these photos on display, just a small number of those who came through S-21.
Every victim was photographed and accounted for. There are hundreds of these photos on display, but that’s just a small number of the thousands who came through S-21.
The women in these photos spoke to me.  But they are just two of way too many.
The women in these photos spoke to me. But they are just two of way too many.
Scenes from S-21
Scenes from S-21.
It's crazy how easily a high school can be turned into a real jail.
It’s crazy how easily a high school can be turned into a real jail.
This wrapping of barbed wire brings home to me how cobbled together this place feels.  And creepy, really creepy.
This wrapping of barbed wire brings home to me how cobbled together this place feels. And creepy, really creepy.
The tiny jail cells.
The tiny jail cells.

In the book the author also painted a picture of her life in Phnom Penh before the forced evacuation. Her descriptions made me want to ride in a cyclo and try crispy fried insects – I did both!  I also visited the huge central market – of course, markets in Asia are one of my favorite things, they are so lively and crazy.  I decided to look for a t-shirt or something there, so I could change out of the one I was wearing.  Turns out black is not the perfect travel color for humid places.  I noticed white spots on the front of my shirt (right where the strap of my bag goes across) and realized it was salt stains from my sweat – gross!  But there is no way not to sweat here, no kidding!  I’ve now come to the conclusion that grey is the best neutral color here.  White doesn’t stay white and black, well I just mentioned why that’s not the best!  So I ended up buying a cute little striped dress at the market.  I thought the woman was saying it came in “three size[s]” but then realized she was saying “free size,” i.e., one size fits all…well, all Asians – it just barely fit me, and was much shorter than I’d expected!     

I'm riding in a cyclo - so fun!
I’m riding in a cyclo – so fun!

Cambodia

It's a cyclo race!
It’s a cyclo race!
The Central Market from outside.
The Central Market from outside.
A tower of flowers!  @ The Central Market.
A tower of flowers! @ The Central Market.
The central market, a French colonial building.
The interior of the Central Market, a French colonial building.
I stumbled into the auto parts section of the market - they really sell everything here.
I stumbled into the auto parts section of the market – they really sell everything here.

While by the time I left I did feel ready to get on with my Vietnam adventure, I surely could have been happy lingering in Phnom Penh a bit longer. 

Cambodia in Two Parts, Part I: Siem Reap and Battambang

Siem Reap

I started my short time in Cambodia in Siem Reap, to see the ancient temples.  I didn’t love the city of Siem Reap (it was very touristy in the part I had time to see), but I couldn’t come to this part of the world without seeing Angkor Wat.  I spent my first day around town – mostly I visited the National Museum (which was a good history lesson and background for the temples), hid out from the heat by the hotel pool, and took a cooking class at La Tigre de Papier

Welcome to Siem Reap.  A view of the river.
Welcome to Siem Reap. A view of the river.
Fish monger.  They're kept alive until purchase.
Fish monger. They’re kept alive until purchase.
So many kinds of rice!
So many kinds of rice!
How thy measure the rice.  Love this old scale.
How thy measure the rice. Love this old scale.
Mango salad!  Photobombed by one of the friendly Aussies in my class.
Mango salad! Photobombed by one of the friendly Aussies in my class.

I was not as surprised and impressed by Cambodian food as I was by Laotian food, but did try some interesting things (like tree ants sautéed with beef).  Their most popular main dish seems to be amok, which is basically a yellow curry without coconut milk that can be made with just about any meat (although fish is the most popular).  We made fish amok in my cooking class and I had amok three more times while in Cambodia.  Apart from the lack of coconut milk, I had a hard time identifying the distinguishing characteristics of Cambodian food.  What I could figure out in my short time here is that their food is not spicy (they only sporadically serve chilies on the side), and I saw more insects integrated into things.  I also learned a far more efficient way of cooking sticky rice in my cooking class (just cook it in a pan – no special steam basket required like in Laos and Thailand).

So, anyway, about the temples . . . I did a day tour with a guide and caught the sunrise at Angkor Wat.  It was worth starting that early, if only to beat the big crowds. Unfortunately by 9:00 a.m. not only was it incredibly hot, I discovered that both my camera batteries were on their last legs.  So I could only get the “money shorts” at many of the temples I visited.  Oh well, lesson learned (don’t assume Aisa plugs actually delivered power to your devices when you plugged them in). 

Sunrise @ Angkor Wat.
Sunrise @ Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat at day break.

Eating my toast, waiting for the sunrise.
Eating my toast, waiting for the sunrise.
A view of Angkor Wat.
A view of Angkor Wat.
Me with the Apsaras.
Me with the Apsaras.

Apart from the fact that these temples have stood for so long, what I found most fascinating is that they were used as both Hindu and Buddhist temples at different times.  The Khmer people switched between Hinduism and Buddhism several times in their history – according to what the then-current king preferred.  Although now primarily Buddhist, you can still see the influence of both (I was previously confused by seeing so many Vishnu statutes around a primarily Buddhist country).  So Angkor Wat started out as a Hindu temple, and was later changed to a Buddhist one – just by painting it red and updating the central statute to a Buddha, leaving intact the original Hindu carvings (like the carving of the fable about the gods and demons churning the sea of milk to release a tonic that provides immortality).  But Ta Prohm started off as a Buddhist temple and was later converted to a Hindu one – this transformation was more harsh, as the Buddha carvings were either chiseled off or updated to look like praying Hindu priests. 

Some of the many faces of Bayon temple.
Some of the many faces of Bayon temple.
An incense vendor. @ Bayon temple.
An incense vendor. @ Bayon temple.
This is when a guide is useful -- he knew just how to set up this nose-to-nose shot.
This is when a guide is useful — he knew just how to set up this nose-to-nose shot.
The trees are taking over.  @ Ta Prohm.
The trees are taking over. @ Ta Prohm.
This Buddha image was fairly obviously doctored to look like a Hindu priest praying (how the legs are crossed was changed, the beard added, and now he's holding something...not sure what).
This Buddha image was fairly obviously doctored to look like a Hindu priest praying (how the legs are crossed was changed, the beard added, and now he’s holding something…not sure what).
@ Ta Prohm.  They love to remind you that Tomb Raider was filmed here.
@ Ta Prohm. They love to remind you that Tomb Raider was filmed here.
A final view of Ta Prohm.
A final view of Ta Prohm.
A guarding lion.  @ Phnom Bakheng.
A guarding lion. @ Phnom Bakheng.
I had to take a photo with these monks, since we matched.  And the one to my left is simultaneously taking a photo of this round-headed white girl on his phone.
I had to take a photo with these monks, since we matched. And the one to my left is simultaneously taking a photo of this round-headed white girl on his phone.
And ancient temple hiding in the jungle.
And ancient temple hiding in the jungle.

I was overall happy that I saw the temples, but two days in Siem Reap was enough. 

Battambang

Itching to get out of Siem Reap, I headed to Battambang, a smaller city with many old French colonial buildings still intact.  While Siem Reap didn’t give me a great first impression of the “real” Cambodia, Battambang totally redeemed it.  Much of that is because I spent time outside the city doing a tuk tuk tour with a guide who spoke decent English (“Sam”). 

The best bus curtain I've seen so far in Asia.
The best bus curtain I’ve seen so far in Asia (on the bus to Battambang).

I had scheduled a walking tour in the old historical city center for my first afternoon in town – turned out to be just me and two guides (one in training).  I have to say, sadly, it was the worst walking tour I’ve ever had.  The guides couldn’t really tell me much of anything about what we saw (they pointed and told me the name of things…uh, okay) and couldn’t speak English well enough to understand my questions.  Not much of a reward for walking around in the crazy heat!  The highlight was actually when they suggested we have the sugar cane juice I’d seen everywhere in SE Asia but had yet to try.  Of course it’s really good – not super sweet, but it did make my teeth hurt! 

Cambodia
Welcome to Battambang! A view of the governor’s palace in the background.
The national bank.
The national bank.
A naga made of old gun parts.  A peace monument.
A naga made of old gun parts. A peace monument.
Crushing the sugar cane to get out the juice (this is a machine run by a generator, but sometimes they use a hand-cranked version).
Crushing the sugar cane to get out the juice (this is a machine run by a generator, but sometimes they use a hand-cranked version).
Cold sugar cane juice is just what I need in this heat!
Cold sugar cane juice is just what I need in this heat!
Housewares for sale!  Mobile motorcycle-driven stores (I've seen these pulled by bicycle too).
Housewares for sale! Mobile motorcycle-driven stores (I’ve seen these pulled by bicycle too).

The best thing the guides did for me was to point out a good restaurant – Jaan Bai – where I went right after they released me from the “tour.”  The food was great (I got an actual salad – yippee!), and I ended up meeting two sweet Aussie ladies (Lyn and Denise) who I tagged along with to a really fun circus at a nonprofit that runs arts programs for local youth.  Although the dialog was in Khmer, we got the gist of the storyline and the kids were talented performers!

The next morning I ventured out and found a huge breakfast ($3) at a cute little café that became my spot while in town.  The owner was so sweet and even gave me free fruit every day. 

My $3 breakfast.
My $3 breakfast. Yes, I often eat a Western breakfast since I eat local food for most every other meal.
I'm always drawn to the fun graffiti.  Saw this right by my hotel coming back from breakfast.
I’m always drawn to the fun graffiti. Saw this right by my hotel coming back from breakfast.

I then “made a tour” with my tuk tuk driver, Sam.  He showed me around town a bit before we headed out to the countryside.  We went by the old train station, which is no longer in use.  There I saw cool decrepit old repair sheds – some with interesting graffiti inside, and some with families living inside. 

Scenes from the old train yard.
Scenes from the old train yard.
Graffiti at the dilapidated repair sheds by the old train station.
Graffiti at the dilapidated repair sheds by the old train station.
And old train shed, now housing (although that's hard to see in this photo).
And old train shed, now housing (although that’s hard to see in this photo).

I have to say, the level of poverty I’ve seen in parts of SE Asia is eye-opening.  Many don’t have the luxury of worrying about much beyond survival.  And they work really hard to survive and make do with little.  It has really made me realize my privilege in a way I hadn’t before.  Strangely it hit home when I watched an episode of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.  I haven’t really remained plugged-into media (especially American media), and being here so long, spending time among everyday people, I have come to understand the way of things and what drives people here more than I could on a short trip.   And I can’t even remember exactly what it was that Jimmy Fallon was joking about in his monologue or discussing with his guests, but it struck me as foreign.  I understood it, of course I’m still an American, but I saw it from a different perspective.  Not only did it bring into focus how privileged we are (we have the luxury of concerning ourselves with things that are so far removed from the day to day reality for many here), but I could actually see how, from an outside perspective, American culture holds the allure and promise of wealth and ease.  I started to understand why so many Cambodians told me they want to move to the U.S. for a better life (despite my attempt to tell them it’s not necessarily a better life just because they can earn more, it’s a complicated cost-benefit analysis).  It was enlightening to see the privilege I’ve mostly taken for granted through the perspective I’ve gained during these last two months. 

On my tour, I also rode the old bamboo train (a tourist must) – which is really just a bamboo platform on four wheels with a small engine (lawn mower? motorbike?) to propel it forward.  It goes faster than you’d expect!   And to turn it around the drivers just lift the platform off the tracks and either move it aside or turn it around so the “train” is propelled in the other direction.  We also stopped by a Cambodian winery, where they made a red wine, sherry, and grape juice.  It was interesting, but (to put it mildly) nowhere close to California standards. 

Riding on the bamboo train.
Riding on the bamboo train.
The rails of the bamboo railroad (at some points overgrown and warped).
The rails of the bamboo railroad (at some points overgrown and warped).
Moving the car coming the other way, so we can pass.
Moving the car coming the other way, so we can pass.
And old railway "car"
And old railway “car”
Scenes from the railway ride
Scenes from the railway ride

I also saw lots of bats – both a bat-filled tree (with big bats) and a bat cave (with small bats).  At the bat cave the small bats fly out in a swarm every evening to go hunting for food.  They fly in swarms over the fields, like a big snake in the air.  I also visited a Muslim fishing village, and hiked up a hill with some great views, and the killing cave (into which the Khmer Rouge dropped their victims without the need to kill them first, ugg).  Everywhere we went it was smiles and waves from the children – apparently Cambodian kids really love white people.  And if I got close enough they would just want to touch me (high fives all around…even the small babies would reach out their hands).  It was very sweet. 

Women sorting sticks.  @ the Muslim fishing village.
Women sorting sticks. @ the Muslim fishing village.
Goats, just hanging out. @ the Muslim fishing village.
Goats, just hanging out. @ the Muslim fishing village.
Neat old-fashioned ice crusher (you can't see the woman sleeping in the hammock behind there; most locals nap through the hottest part of the day).
Neat old-fashioned ice crusher (you can’t see the woman sleeping in the hammock behind there; most locals nap through the hottest part of the day).
Bat tree - these are the big bats!
Bat tree – these are the big bats!
Hey...tigers don't wear hats!
Hey…tigers don’t wear hats!
Apparently it feel divine to have your lice eaten off.  A few of the many monkeys I saw in my wandering around on the [killing cave] hill.
Apparently it feel divine to have your lice eaten off. A few of the many monkeys I saw in my wandering around on the [killing cave] hill.
The view was worth the climb!  This is when I got lost looking for the killing cave and wandered around through the many sights on this hill my guide simply pointed me up while he waited at the bottom.
The view was worth the climb! This is when I got lost looking for the killing cave and wandered around through the many sights on this hill my guide simply pointed me up while he waited at the bottom.
The memorial in the killing cave.
The memorial in the killing cave.
The small bats flying by the thousands out of the bat cave.  This happens every evening.
The small bats flying by the thousands out of the bat cave. This happens every evening.
One of the clouds of bats flying like a snake over the fields, hunting bugs.
One of the clouds of bats flying like a snake over the fields, hunting bugs.
The sunset was so brilliantly orange-red, I just had to snap a quick shot out the back of the tuk tuk.
The sunset was so brilliantly orange-red, I just had to snap a quick shot out the back of the tuk tuk.

My last morning in town I did a mini-tour, and saw where they make rice paper, fermented fish paste (a stinky place, of course), and sticky rice in bamboo.  We also stopped by the Well of Shadows, a memorial to the locals who died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.  There are killing fields everywhere (over 300), and this is one of the many.  It’s hard to go touring in Cambodia without being shown these parts.  It was hard for me know whether the Khmers are open to talking about that short, violent period in their history, or whether they’d rather not.  I tried to ask Sam this question but I don’t think he knew what I meant.  I generally didn’t bring it up, since I don’t see the need to.  It is part of their history, but there is so much more to the Khmer culture that I prefer to give attention to (the great Khmer empire covered most of SE Asia at one time, after all). 

 

Making rice paper.  So much work, and they sell for $0.50 per 100 sheets.
Making rice paper. So much work, and they sell for $0.50 per 100 sheets.
Steaming each one and peeling it off intact - this takes talent!  They burn the rice husk for the fire, so nothing is wasted.
Steaming each one and peeling it off intact – this takes talent! They burn the rice husk for the fire, so nothing is wasted.
Drying the rice paper.  Now I understand why they have square indentations on them.
Drying the rice paper. Now I understand why they have square indentations on them.
The vats for mixing up the fish paste, before letting it sit for a long time to ferment.  Stinky work!
The vats for mixing up the fish paste, before letting it sit for a long time to ferment. Stinky work!
Overgrown mausoleum.
Overgrown mausoleum.
Sticky rice in bamboo.
Sticky rice in bamboo.

Seeing What Time Will Allow in Laos, Part II: Living the Good Life in Luang Prabang

We took the slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang – two days cruising down the Mekong with an overnight stop in the small town of Pak Beng.  We opted for the mid-range boat option, which was actually quite nice.  We were fed, had a few tourist stops and got plenty of time to catch up on reading, journaling, and planning.  We were told the boat could fit up to 100 people (although we weren’t sure how that would be possible looking at it), and there were only 15 of us making the trip.  It was mostly Aussies and everyone was very friendly.  I even got some good travel tips for Cambodia and Vietnam – I spent some time putting together a rough itinerary for Vietnam, so I don’t have to concern myself with it for a while. 

Our boat for the two-day trip.
Our boat for the two-day trip.
Catching up on journaling.  I read a whole book and put together a rough itinerary for Vietnam...productive trip!
Catching up on journaling. I read a whole book and put together a rough itinerary for Vietnam…productive trip!
The speedboat route.  They warn you not to take these since they're dangerous.  It looks pretty miserable regardless.
The speedboat route. They warn you not to take these since they’re dangerous. It looks pretty miserable regardless.

On the first day we stopped at a small village on the tourist circuit.  The kids were expert sales girl and we both ended up with a bracelet from them.  But since I had lost the bracelet I bought in Chiang Mai for $0.30 in the jungle (it was colorful, woven bamboo, made by a very old woman), I was happy to get one of the brightly-colored embroidered cloth bracelet these little girls made (and they were only about $0.50).  I probably should have bought more of them, since these kids are hard workers.  But as you have to learn in Asia, you simply can’t buy from everyone.      

The village girls making sure Ilene has seen every one of the bracelet options.
The village girls making sure Ilene has seen every one of the bracelet options.
Getting the stare down from Mr. Brown Cow.
Getting the stare down from Mr. Brown Cow.

We passed lots of farm land along the Mekong.  This is the dry season, and it’s field-burning time, so our last few hours the first day were spent in a thick cloud of smoke.  The smoke was so bad I covered my mouth with a bandana (like an old fashioned bandit!) and wore my sunglasses to try to protect my eyes from the ash blowing about.  I have not seen blue sky too much in the last few weeks, and these farming practices are a lot of the reason why. 

Super smoky.  Not fun to be passing through.
Super smoky. Not fun to be passing through.
Slash and burn.
Slash and burn.
Hazy Sunrise.  The morning at Pak Beng (where we stayed for the night).
Hazy Sunrise. The morning at Pak Beng (where we stayed for the night).
Mango makes any day better!
Mango makes any day better!
Kids swimming in the Mekong.
Kids swimming in the Mekong.

The second day we stopped at Pak Ou Caves – two caves where many Buddha statutes have seemingly been discarded for lack of anywhere else to put them.  It has the feel of a hoarder’s hiding place, although some of the statutes are hidden in nooks and crannies that gives the place a bit of whimsy. 

 

Peak-a-Buddha!
Peak-a-Buddha!

 

The view from the lower cave.
The view from the lower cave.

 

So many Buddhas! The lower cave at the Pak Ou Caves.
So many Buddhas! The lower cave at the Pak Ou Caves.

We opted to hike up the stairs to the upper cave as well.  Although it was a hot hike, it made us feel slightly better about having lazed about for two days.  And after that stop, it was just a short ride to our final destination.

Entry to the upper cave.
Entry to the upper cave.
The upper cave is pretty dark in parts - glad I brought my flashlight.
The upper cave is pretty dark in parts – glad I brought my flashlight.
Worth the climb!
Worth the climb!

Laos

It struck me that Luang Prabang is a city best shared in pictures, and I took my fair share.  But I had a hard time capturing the quaintness of it all – French colonial architecture with a decidedly Asian influence.  The town is on a peninsula, flanked by the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers, and both waterfronts are lined with lush tropical trees (including every kind of fruit tree imaginable and tons of epiphytes like orchids) and laid back restaurants that make you want to linger.  The old town has so many small side streets (that only pedestrians and two-wheeled vehicles can use) it makes you want to spend all day wandering and exploring. 

When in Asia, do the Asians do (throw up the peace sign in every photo).
When in Asia, do the Asians do (throw up the peace sign in every photo).
Strolling around the old town.
Strolling around the old town.

Laos

Scenes around town. So many epiphytes on the trees here.
Scenes around town. So many epiphytes on the trees here.
Taking a sabbatical during the hottest month...smart, very smart!
Taking a sabbatical during the hottest month…smart, very smart!
One of the many side streets around town.
One of the many side streets around town.
A fun mix of colonial and modern architecture.
A fun mix of colonial and modern architecture.
Those are some big necklaces!
Those are some big necklaces!
Tuk Tuks all in a row.
Tuk Tuks all in a row.

In addition to wandering about, we saw many of the main attractions – the Royal Palace museum, the TEAC (Traditional Art & Ethnology Center), the handicraft night market, many wats (of course), the UXO (Unexploaded Ordnance) Information Center (which will make you feel bad to be an American since we dropped all those bombs during the Vietnam war – Laos is the most bombed country per capita thanks to our attempts to cut off the Ho Chi Mihn Trail), Kuang Si falls (where we swam with monks!) – and made sure to take plenty of breaks for cold drinks and good food. 

What seems to be a restoration workshop at one of the many wats.
What seems to be a restoration workshop at one of the many wats.
They had equal numbers of crosswalk signs depicting women as men.  Apparently it takes Communism to start thinking about gender equality on this level!
They had equal numbers of crosswalk signs depicting women as men. Apparently it takes Communism to start thinking about gender equality on this level!
Getting to the good stuff (heat break for iced coffee and coconuts).
Getting to the good stuff (heat break for iced coffee and coconuts).
Those are some big necklaces!
Those are some big necklaces!
The wat at the Royal Palace.
The wat at the Royal Palace.
Don't you stick your tongue out at me!
Don’t you stick your tongue out at me!
Fun chandeliers.
Fun chandeliers.
Along the Nam Khan River.
Along the Nam Khan River.
Asians know how to be efficient with their transport (I have yet to capture one of the many heavily-loaded motorbikes).
Asians know how to be efficient with their transport (I have yet to capture one of the many heavily-loaded motorbikes).
A noodle soup vendor looking for customers -- soup at your doorstep, now that's convenience!
A noodle soup vendor looking for customers — soup at your doorstep, now that’s convenience!
Lots of boombies in one bomb (this is how carpet bombing is done).
Lots of boombies in one bomb (this is how carpet bombing is done).

Laos

Pedestrians get a special lane on this bridge
Pedestrians get a special lane on this bridge
Another questionable bridge.
I’ve now walked over many a questionable bridge.
Well, hello!
Well, hello!
Monk-watching at lunch.
Monk-watching at lunch.
Crossing the bamboo bridge - yes, it's rickety...it is temporary (rebuilt every year), after all.
Crossing the bamboo bridge – yes, it’s rickety…it is temporary (rebuilt every year), after all.
Time to climb!  Heading up Phousi Hill.
Time to climb! Heading up Phousi Hill.
Hilltop selfie.
Hilltop selfie.
And this is why we do it -- the view is worth the climb!
And this is why we do it — the view is worth the climb!
This rock is hot, but it's a great view!
This rock is hot, but it’s a great view!
Saw some cute bears - bonus!  At Kuang Si Waterfall.
Saw some cute bears – bonus! At Kuang Si Waterfall.
Ready for a swim! At Kuang Si Waterfall.
Ready for a swim! At Kuang Si Waterfall.
Some of the many layers of pools at the falls
Some of the many layers of pools at the falls
The upper falls
The upper falls
Monks, jumping off rocks!
Monks, jumping off rocks!
It's not everyday you get to swim with monks!
It’s not everyday you get to swim with monks!
Sitting on the edge of the upper falls
Sitting on the edge of the upper falls
Our scooters are calling out for another adventure!
Our scooters are calling out for another adventure!
Winding our way through backstreets to find the famed Utopia
Winding our way through backstreets to find the famed Utopia
Trying dark Beerlao at Utopia.  Honestly I couldn't taste much difference from the regular version.
Trying dark Beerlao at Utopia. Honestly I couldn’t taste much difference from the regular version.
We were able to ride right up to this hilltop wat! @ Wat Taohai
We were able to ride right up to this hilltop wat! @ Wat Taohai
Seeking counsel @ Wat Taohai
Seeking counsel @ Wat Taohai
The view from Wat Taohai
The view from Wat Taohai
Climbing to the top @ Wat Taohai
Climbing to the top @ Wat Taohai
One of the many creepy frescos at Wat Taohai
One of the many creepy frescos at Wat Taohai

I have to say that Laos food is awesome!  I’m trying to note the distinctions between the cuisines here, so I’ve been making an effort to take a cooking class (at least one) in each country I visit.  We went to a cooking class at Tamarind.  Like in our Thai cooking class, we again used a mortar and pestle to make almost everything.  But we cooked everything in or on a small ceramic hibachi-type charcoal grill – unlike the gas flame used elsewhere.  It was all so deceptively simple.  While some of the spices used are the same as in Thai cooking, in Laos the chilies are a bit different and we used spices like coriander, dill, and mint in amounts and combinations I hadn’t seen before.  While in Laos there is Laap, which is similar to the Thai dish (spiced ground meat, basically), the Laos version has more mint, no basil, and is spicier. The Laos also love their sticky rice (they eat it with every meal and use their hands) and make some great sausage (buffalo is common). Laos food feels a bit lighter, since they don’t really use a lot of coconut milk (I can’t believe I didn’t feed my curry addiction but still loved the food) and even their “stews” are more like soups (with clear broth).  I wasn’t sure what to expect in Laos, honestly, and the food we got in the jungle was so bland I was a bit worried.  But after eating my way through Luang Prabang, I must say that Laos food is right up there with Thai as my favorite.  I just hope I can do it justice when I make it at home! 

Time to cook!  At Tamarind cooking school.
Time to cook! At Tamarind cooking school.
Banana leaf wrapping success!
Banana leaf wrapping success!
And this is how you can stuff lemongrass.
And this is how you can stuff lemongrass.
And now we feast!
And now we feast!
Breakfast on the Nam Khan river (the little river) at our hotel
Breakfast on the Nam Khan river (the little river) at our hotel
No rice goes to waste - making rice cakes out of left-over sticky rice
No rice goes to waste – making rice cakes out of left-over sticky rice