Monday, July 20, 2009

Mot, Hai, Ba.....YO!!!!!!

After getting clothes tailor made and stomaching the amount of money we spent on uneccesary items, we decided to continue up north to a town called Hue. Hue used to be the capital of Vietnam and is famous for its "Imperial City". I'll admit, I did not take the time to really research the city and history of everything. Sometimes your mind just needs a break. I ended up just walking around and enjoying all of the old buildings and asian architecture. A lot of the Imperial city was damaged by natural disasters and war, but they are working hard to rebuild it. It is pretty fascinating to view the intricate designs and bold colors. I can only imagine what the city looked like at its prime. Perhaps I will come back to visit in 10 years when everything is rebuilt again.
Our last night in Hue, we decided to have a couple of cocktails. I have to be careful not to go out too often because of my budget, but every few weeks we have a "party" night. We moved from one bar to the next. I was really on a mission to have a good chat with other travelers. Since we don't go out too often sometimes you don't meet as many people. Especially since I have been traveling with Laura, I don't go out of my way to socialize as much as I do when I am alone.
I started chatting with this Indian guy named Sumit. He lives in England and was traveling with 4 other Brits. Laura was getting tired (or as I say....wussing out!) and wanted to go home. I was just getting on a roll for the night. I asked Sumit if I could tag along with them. Our hotels were in the same area so it was safer for me. We ended up finding this one bar with a pool table. We asked the locals what time it closed...they said as long as we were buying beer and betting on pool with them, we could stay there as long as we wanted. After rounds of pool, drinks, and deep conversations about how our generation needs to make the changes to better the world, the sun was starting to rise. I could not believe I was still awake....I thanked the British boys for the nice chat and drinks and headed back to my room.
Back in Cambodia, we met an American couple from Idaho (Katie and Andy). They were on the same route as we were so we ran into them often. We all decided to hire a boat together in Halong Bay.In order to meet up with them in time,Laura and I needed to catch an overnight bus to Hanoi. Until now, we had not done a proper overnight bus. I did them a lot in South America and had gotten used to them. But I would soon learn that overnight busses in Asia are a little different then the busses in South America. We got to the bus station and saw a bus with tons and tons of Vietnamese people pushing to get on. There are no queues here or any form of standing in line. The asians are so little and they just push by you and squeeze around everything to get where they need to go...kinda like little ants. I finally got onto the bus and the driver handed me a plastic bag to put my shoes in. You cannot wear shoes anywhere near where people sleep. As I looked around the bus to find a seat I noticed that there were none left. My ticket did not have a seat number. It was complete chaos...I finally got my shoes back and stepped off the bus. There were about 5 other foreigners that did not get on as well. Clearly, the neanderthal white people were not the quickest ones onto the bus. The driver told us there would be another bus shortly that we could get on. I am kind of glad we didn't get on the bus because as I looked more closely, I realized that half of the front window and door was ducked taped together.
The next bus came and we were all able to get on. The bus has 3 rows of these things that they call beds. It is only a bed if you are shorter then 5 foot 5. If you are a tall person then it is very uncomfortable. All of the single beds were taken except for the very back of the bus. There were 5 beds together in the very back where the A/C was not working. Laura and I threw our bags over and jumped in. I was laughing histerically because all of these kids were running around with face masks and vietnammese music was was one of those "What the F is going on" moments!
No one else came on the bus so it appeared that we were going to have the 5 beds all to ourselves...which we were excited about. But at the last minute, 3 foreign guys jumped on and headed to the back. They were 3 Irish lads named Ollie, Eoin, and Patrick. Patrick and me were stuck in the middle beds. He jokingly leaned his hand over and introduced himself. We were literally laying so close to each other as if we had known each other for ages. They were very tight quarters. The Irish boys were a good crack and we strategically placed our bodies around each other so we could play a few rounds of cards. After a little while we all decided to lay in the beds and try to get some rest. Patrick and I continued chatting while everyone else drifted asleep. He was a very cute guy who is a teacher back in Ireland. We got to know each other while chatting for a few hours. We joked back and forth about how we all 5 had to spoon in one direction in order to fit on the beds. Then we would all have to switch over to spoon the other direction every so often. The beds were not made for 5 foreigners. I am not sure if it was the tight space, the daunting sticky heat, or the 12 hour bus ride....but you could feel the attraction between Patrick and I as we laid close to each other chatting. I have met plenty of people while traveling but it is not so easy to meet guys since you move around so much. I am not interested in the party hook up travel circuit either, which so many people get involved in. It would be nice to meet someone genuine, but it is not that easy with this type of unpredictable lifestyle. Anyways...the whole point of my schpeil is that it was nice to have a good chat with this guy for a few hours. Even though we had only just met...we ended up having a good cuddle session on the cramped, hot bus. It made my bus ride a lot more enjoyable then it could have been. I will probably never see Patrick again, but it was fun :) Next time I take an overnight bus I will request a cute Irish talkative lad to sit next to me..HA!
Our bus arrived to Hanoi which is the capital city. However, we needed to get to Cat Ba Island about 5 hours away so we could meet up with the Americans to get on our boat. When we got off the overnight bus, a rush of motorbike locals came up yelling for us to get on. It is always overwhelming when you have been on a bus for hours and then have to deal with the chaos of a new city. We negotiated a price for these 2 guys to take us to another bus station. 30,000 dong...which was way more then we needed to pay, but sometimes you don't feel like fighting the scams. The drivers then took us to a completely different bus and tried to get us to go to a different city. Hanoi is known for this type of scam where they convince you that this is the correct bus just so you pay money to their friends, etc. I had prepared myself for this scam and was not going to fall for it. I jumped off the bike and told the guy he took us to the wrong place and I didn't want to ride with him anymore. I still gave him the money because I didn't want to deal with him. I gave him 50,000 dong and asked him for 20,000 back. He pretended to ignore me and started his bike again. Meanwhile, another guy came over and grabbed my bag and tried to stick it on the bus. It was all happening so fast. I can normally keep my cool, but they are now trying to steal money from me and grabbing my stuff. I started yelling at them to leave my bag alone and continued asking the driver for the change. I finally reached in his pocket and grabbed my money back. He grabbed my arm and I told him he was not getting any money unless he gave me my change back. At the same time I was kicking the other guy away from my bag and causing a minor scene on the street. The driver pulled out 10,000 dong....I said that wasnt enough. "give me fucking 20,000 change back mister or you get nothing from me". All the men started laughing and he finally gave me the change. I grabbed my bag and Laura and I told everyone to get away from us. Welcome to Hanoi....sheeesh!!! Fortunately, the place we needed to go to was not that far and we were able to walk. Another 5 hour busride and a 1 hour boat ride and we were on the island of Cat Ba. It was gorgeous. Cat Ba is the place where Vietnamese people come for holiday. It would be like Florida or Hawaii for us. We kinda forgot that it was summer and holiday break for the Vietnamese as it was a madhouse on the Island. We had a tough time finding a place to stay and the prices were really jacked up. It was pretty cool, though, to see how the locals spend their vacation. They work hard all year and save money to bring their entire family to this island for a few days....they have a good time, too.
We met up with the Americans and finalized our plans for the boat. We were going to spend 2 days and 1 night on a private boat cruising through Halong Bay. The company we went through was Slo Pony...It is run by 3 American guys who specialize in rock climbing and boat tours. They take people to areas of the bay that are far from all the tourists. Most tour groups always say that, but this is one of the first times where they were telling the truth. The reason I mention their name as a company is because they were very helpful. Instead of trying to scam you or give you a bad deal (which often happens to foreigners over here), they were very upfront and honest about their services. I was intrigued as to how 3 Americans were running a business in a communist country. Oslo, one of the owners, explained that he could write a book about the loopholes they went through to have a business here. He said that you would be amazed how business and the government works in Vietnam. They were the first foreigners to ever live on Cat Ba. He said they had to live in Hotels for a year in a half before they were allowed to buy a house. One of the guys is married to a Vietnamese girl now, so I wonder how much that has helped their situation. I didn't ask many questions, but what they are doing has not been done too often here. And it sounds like a pretty interesting situation that they have with the government to run the shop.
Anyways, we met another couple from Spain and Germany who put money in on the boat as well....there were 6 of us. Early the next day we boarded the boat and set off to Halong Bay. It was pouring down rain, but it was still a sight to see. Limestone cliffs and rock formations are all around the bay and gives it a very mystical look. The first day we went kayaking. There are all these caves that go into private lagoons. There were hardly any other tourists around. One thing we noticed, were that there were a lot of jellyfish swimming around the lagoons. It was fun to look at them, but we sure as hell didn't want to get stung so we stayed in the kayaks. We spent the rest of the day eating, swimming, and chatting with each other. It was so chill and nice to relax after our hectic travel up there. At one point it was pouring down rain, but we all decided to swim out to this island. It was awesome being in the middle of Halong bay in a storm. We joked about jellyfish...I was seriously paranoid about them, but tried to keep my cool. Everyone else seemed so comfortable frolocking in the water, but I was constantly looking around me and making sure nothing came near. That night, Katie, Andy, Laura and I stayed up late drinking beer and chatting about our travels. Katie and Andy are from Idaho and have been on a 4 month trip. They only have 5 more days left of their trip. Katie is going back to school to be a scientist and Andy is going back to start medical school. It was nice to chat with 2 American travelers and compare stories. When it was really late we decided to go night swimming because you could see the phosflurescents...which is the glow of the algea swimming in the ocean. As we were about to get in, the captain came running over and said that there were a lot of jellyfish out that night. We decided to just stick a paddle in the water to see the was neat. I passed by the other couples room (they had gone to sleep a few hours before) and noticed that the light was still on. As I peered through the window I saw Chemma (the spanish guy) walking around blindfolded and Carina (the german girl) laying in bed watching him. I was like...WTF? are they doing in there? I seriously thought they were playing some sort of sex scharade game. We had a laugh outside about it because Katie and Andy had to share a room with them. They felt awkward going back in later that night. Well as it turns out, they were not playing a weird sex game, but instead they were sleeping with the lights on because there were so many cockroaches crawling all over the beds. Carina woke up to one in her hair and you could hear them crawling all over the sideboards. With the lights on they would stay hidden. They laughed so hard the next day when I told them that I thought they were getting all kinky on the boat.
The next day we continued to do more kayaking and swimming. We went deep into one cave and were surrounded by bats. The bat poo smelled awful, but it was pretty cool to be that deep into a cave. After that though, another round of nausea came over me. Ever since I have been sick in Cambodia I get these weird waves. Most of the time I can mentally convince myself that I am fine and it will pass, but for some reason it would not pass this day. I went back to the boat and layed down. Lunch was ready and I thought that maybe I was just hungry and not nauseas. I tried to eat, but as soon as I smelled the food I ran to the bathroom and vomitted. After that I was fine. I must have a weird parasite living in me because I have never thrown up this much before. After getting sick I was back to my old self again and continued hanging out on the boat. We decided to go for one last swim before we headed back to the island. We were all laying in the water and chatting it up. I joked how the ocean scared me because you never knew what was below...I was more of a lake girl myself. The water felt so nice and I would lay on my back and stare up at the relaxing. And then I felt it....this wave of burning fire stroked my right ass cheek and I instantly knew that I had been hit. "Oh my God...Oh my God...I've been hit. Seriously y'all....I am not joking...a jellyfish...Oh my God" I screamed this as I swam the fastest I have ever swam to the boat. I was out of the water in olympic time. Meanwhile, everyone in the water was freaking out because usually there are schools of jellyfish so they all grabbed the side of the boat and were hanging there paranoid. I climbed out but was so scared to look at the burn on my ass. For all I knew there could have still been a jellyfish hanging off of me. Chemma walked out of his room after he heard the commotion. I asked him to tell me how bad it was. " got stung" is all he said as he stared at it wide eyed. I started shaking because I was kinda freaking out and tears formed in my eyes. It burned bad, but on top off that I was so frustrated that it had been me who got stung. The one who was most paranoid. My voice quivered as I said "Why me....why did it have to be me". I looked down at everyone hanging off the boat and asked "So...which one of you is going to piss on me." No one replied. I sure as hell wasn't going to piss on myself. After my initial freak out and being upset that I was the one that got stung, my whole entire body started to itch really bad. It was at that point when I realized I knew nothing about jelly fish stings. Was my body about to go into cardiac arrest? Was I going to have temporary paralysis? What the hell happens to you? Chemma just looked at me and said "Well its been 5 minutes and you haven't died I think you will be ok". We headed back to the port. I sat up on top and tried to get my mind off of my burning ass. And the fact that it was on my ass pissed me off even more....of all the places! Anyways, I continued scratching my body and figured it was just the toxins circulating through my blood big deal. We arrived back to the Slo Pony shop about 1 hour later. I went up the Eric, another owner, and asked him how bad a jellyfish sting was. His first question he asked very seriously was "What color was the jellyfish?" None of us actually saw the it after it stung me...we had no idea what it looked like. "Does it matter what color it was?" I replied. Then he asked how long ago it had happened. I told him it had been an hour. "You got stung an hour ago and you are this coherent and talking to me right now?...Wow...that is pretty amazing. I think you will be ok." People react differently to the stings and it sounds like I was pretty lucky. He then told us a story about how his friend was rock climbing and fell off the cliff into the water. He came up with a jellyfish wrapped around his face. He layed on the rocks for 6 hours crying with agonizing pain. He ended up peeing in a cup and pouring it on his face. After I heard that story I was very thankful it stung me on my ass and that my reaction was minor.
It was Saturday night and the Vietnamese holiday was in full effect. We had not booked a hotel in advance. We asked Slo Pony if they could help us find accomodation. They said they had a few people they could call, but it was not likely they would find something...but they offered the couches in their office. Fortunetaly, one of the rooms they own in a hotel was open so they put us up there for the night for a really cheap price. As I mentioned before...these guys were super cool dudes. The room was pretty decent. It was your typical bachelor pad. A tiled artwork of a naked asian woman in the bathroom and dishevled furniture. But it was clean and a roof over our head. The AC unit was directly over where I was sleeping. Every now and then a drip would fall on me when I was sleeping, but it didn't bother me too bad. However, at about 3 am a rush of water came out of the unit onto my face like a waterfall. I woke up freaking out....."make it stop..make it stop". We were all disoriented and Katie found the remote to turn it off. I was soaking wet and so was the bed. I turned around and slept in the opposite corner in a ball. It just wasn't my day I suppose :)
The next day we made our journy back to Hanoi. We continued traveling with Katie and Andy and all decided to get a hotel room together to save on the costs. It was a sweet room with plenty of space, air con, and a flat screen tv. Hanoi is a crazy city...much crazier then Saigon in my opinion. A lot of people do not enjoy Vietnam because they feel that the people are pushy and in your face. If you started your travels in Vietnam up North in Hanoi, I could understand why you would start off on the wrong foot. I was not that impressed with the vibe in the city. I am thankful that we started traveling South and then up because we were able to see a better side of the country.
One night we all went out to dinner. In Vietnam they have these places called Bia Hois. It translates to Draught beer. Each day they make batches of this fresh draft beer and sell 1 glass for 3,000 dong. 18,000 dong equals a dollar so you can have 6 beers for 1 dollar. It is brilliant! Anyways, at dinner we were given a drink list. There were regular priced beers and then 2 items at the bottom for about 8,000 dong. We figured this was some of the local beer but that the prices were jacked up a bit since it was a proper restaurant. We ordered 2 of each of the "local beers". 5 minutes later the waitress walked out with 2 bottled waters and a plate of shredded beef. cool... we thought. They give you free water and a snack before dinner. Well, it turns out we just didnt know what the hell we were ordering. We ordered water and shredded beef instead of beer....we had a good laugh over that.
The next day I ran into my old British friend Dave and some people that he had met. We all decided to go out to have a big dinner together. It was me and Laura, Katie and Andy, Dave, and french guy named Antione, and Brit named Chris, and a Belg named Jeremy. I always love the international dinners. Before dinner though, Andy and Katie wanted to have a few cheep beers and the Bia Hoi. It was there last day in Vietnam so we wanted to celebrate. I know it sounds like I have been drinking a lot in this blog, but seriously.....6 beers for $1. How can you pass that up? The beer started flowing, we all met up for dinner and then continued on to more Bia Hois after dinner with our big group of international travelers. We went on a Bia Hoi crawl from one street corner to the next. They are not proper bars by any means. It is simply a keg surrounded by small plastic chairs on the sidewalk. Very basic, very cheap, very amazing! Instead of saying Vietnamese you say Mot, Hai, Ba....YO! and clank your drinks together. It was a fun night!
Well today is our last day in Vietnam. Dave, Laura and I all crossed from Cambodia to Vietnam so we decided to cross together to Laos. All of the sleeper buses were booked for days so we bought tickets for a "sitting" bus. It is going to be a 24 hour long bus ride to cross the border and we will be sitting the whole time. It is going to be one hell of a busride. Ah well.....another epic journey to a new country. Vietnam has been awesome.....I have had some really cool experiences here. Goodbye Vietnam. Let's see what Laos has to offer :)

Friday, July 10, 2009

Hit the road, Jack!

Before I start anything, I just want to say that Vietnam is awesome. I love this country and it has made my list of top places I have visited. Every traveler will tell you that your experience in a country depends on a lot of factors. Some people may have an amazing time somewhere while others would never go back to visit. The experiences you have, the people you meet, your health, the weather, and the cultural connection can all play a big part in how you perceive a place. After a few weeks of health problems and coping with a round of homesickness, I hoped that something would shift in my surroundings to give me a zest of refreshment and motivation to get my travel mojo back. Well...I am back!

While in Saigon, Dave, Laura, and I signed up for a half day tour to visit the war tunnels outside of town. We loaded onto a bus with about 10 other tourists. Our tour guide was named Joey, or at least that was the name he told us to call him. He had a microphone at the front of the bus and as soon as we were all seated he started explaining how he got the name Joey. He said that he had befriended an Australian ex-pat and they hung out a lot. The ex-pat called him Joey like the kangaroo. They got to know each other well and the ex-pat was going to try to get him into Australia to live. However, he ended up dying in a car accident….and Joey never got to Australia. His dream of starting a life there was shattered. The entire bus was silent after his introductory story. We weren’t sure why he had just told us that and what type of response he was wanting. Shortly after the story, Joey tried to liven up the group by telling jokes. I am not sure if it had something to do with the language or cultural barrier, but Joey did not have the concept of political correctness. Let’s just say, if you were black, gay, America, or catholic, you would have been offended. After calling Obama a “chocolate baby” and gay men “3 dollar bills” we started looking around each other wondering what type of tour we had signed up for. After he got out all of his bad jokes though, Joey ended up being pretty informative and I learned a lot about the war that day.

During the war against the French, the hill tribes and Vietnamese created tunnel systems throughout certain regions of the county. These tunnels were so intricate and certain areas were 3 levels deep. They included full-on living areas, breathing holes, watering wells, and booby traps. Some of the systems went on for miles and miles. During the “American War” the US soldiers would build camps over the tunnels without having a clue what was below them. In the middle of the night, VC would come out of hidden trap doors and ambush soldiers and then retreat back into the tunnels without leaving a trace behind. It took a very long time for the US Soldiers to realize what they were up against. Once they were aware of the tunnel systems, they did whatever they could to figure out where the hidden doors were located. Dogs were used to sniff out the area. However, the VC would steal American soap and other items and place them around the breathing holes. This way the dogs could not identify a foreign smell. Sometimes the American soldiers would find an entrance, but most often their bodies were too big to make it past the first level or they would get caught in a booby trap. Keep in mind, the tunnels were most often without electricity. The VC knew the systems by the back of their hands and even though it was dark, they would navigate around the booby traps. At the tunnel site, there was an area that had been cleared of any traps to allow tourists to crawl through. It was a 700 meter long tunnel and they actually made it slightly bigger to accommodate the western sized bodies. As soon as I entered a wave of heat hit me. I managed to bend my back over my knees and walked through most of it. Certain areas I had to get on all fours to get through. However, my shoulders rubbed against the ceiling and it was extremely tight fitting. If you were any bigger than me then it would have been difficult to fit through. After about 2 minutes of being in the tunnel I got a little claustrophobic. I knew as long as I kept moving I would reach the end, but there was no way that I was comfortable being down there. Sweat was dripping down my back and all I could think about was how the villagers and VC would stay in these tunnels for months at a time. They built weapons, devised strategies, cooked, slept, had babies, and raised families in these tunnels and here I was about to faint from crawling through 700 meters for 5 minutes. When we finally reached the end of the tunnel I ran out grasping the fresh air and wiping the sweaty mud off my body. This Taiwanese girl came out behind me and said in a gasping voice “No wonder they won”….I had to agree with her.

After Saigon, we decided to catch a bus to a town called Dalat. It is the gateway town into the Central Highlands. Most tourists follow up the coast line of the country, but I had heard that the highlands were a good alternative if you wanted to get off the beaten path. Dalat was a really nice town. When the French colonized, a lot of them would live in this area because it has the best weather in all of Vietnam. Throughout the year it ranges from 60-80 degrees, which is much cooler than the rest of the country. Because of the weather, they grow an abundant amount of fruit, vegetables, and flowers. It is also decent for grapes, so it is the town where the only Vietnamese wine comes from.

I had heard that there were these motorcycle groups in the highlands that would take you around on day tours. They were called the “Easy Riders”. After walking around the town for a bit, Laura and I stopped at a tourist office to inquire about it. We just wanted to see the countryside of the town and figured the best way to do it was by bike. We jumped on the back of these guys bikes and headed out for a day tour. Our first stop was a flower farm where we saw rows and rows of beautiful flowers. Each day they are trimmed and taken all over the country to be sold in the markets. Next stop was a coffee farm. Apparently, Vietnam is the 2nd largest export of coffee behind Brazil (this is according to my guide). Most of it goes to China and Japan and surrounding countries. I have really enjoyed the coffee here; it almost has a rich mocha taste to it. After that, we went to a Buddhist temple where I saw the most amazing “Happy Buddha”! Happy Buddha´s are the ones that have the big fat bellies. That type of Buddha comes from China, but there is a lot of Chinese influence in Vietnam being that they are neighbors and have fought many wars against each other. The Buddha was huge and baby blue. I have pictures on my picasa so you can see the magnitude of it. Behind its head were circles of neon lights. At night they are glowing all different colors behind his head – I would have loved to have seen that. We also went to a silk factory which was fascinating. I saw the entire process of the seeing the silk worm from the mulberry tree all the way to the weaving machines. Our guides then took us to a local´s house that distilled rice wine and grew mushrooms. It was such a jam packed day and we learned so much about the area. After the tour, our guide Vinh, told us about how we could hire them to take us through the Central Highlands on a 5 day tour through the Ho Chi Ming Trail (the rode built to carry military supplies to the VC). For whatever reason, Laura and I looked at each other and agreed that it was something we should do. I figured it would be a great chance to learn about the country, government, and lifestyles of the people. I was a little bit weary though, because I had not gone a solid 5 days without some sort of stomach issue. Laura had a stomach of steal, but I frequented the bathroom a lot. I rubbed my belly and asked her to be good for the motorcycle trip.

The next morning Vinh and the other driver Cho picked us up. We tied our luggage to the back, strapped on our helmets, grabbed our crotches and spit on the ground….I felt like a renegade! As we meandered out of town I leaned forward and asked Vinh if he had actually ever seen the movie “Easy Rider”. He said “Yes...Hit the Road, Jack!” (In a thick Vietnamese accent).

One of our first stops on the tour was a villager who made rice paper. The process was similar to the rice paper that I saw being made in Cambodia except that they put roasted sesame seeds into the rice paste. The family that we visited was so precious. This old man had a permanent indention on the bottom of his lip where a lit cigarette rested. He stirred the rice paste and scooped it up, placed it on a hot stove top like a crepe and then covered it. After about 20 seconds he would lift the top off, and pull up the circular shape off and place it on a bamboo tray to dry. He did this about 5 times in a row while staring at me and speaking Vietnamese. He was explaining the whole process to me as if I could understand his language. His wife walked onto the porch where we were standing and brought us the finished product. After the paper dries, they roast the paper over a fire and it forms this crunchy type rice cake. You break it apart and dip it into soy sauce for a snack. As I was trying some of it, the older woman walked up to me and stared into my eyes deeply. She then started rattling off in Vietnamese and kept looking at me. I wasn´t sure what was going on, but it appeared that she was saying something meaningful. “What is she saying….Vinh, what is she saying to me” I asked as if I was missing some really important information from this wise old woman. “She asked if you had been here before…because you white people, you all look the same to her. She can´t tell one person from the next.” Vinh and the older couple laughed about her comment. I had to chuckle to myself, too. There was a point in my life where I thought that all Asians looked the same as well. The old man let me and Laura try to make rice paper. Mine did not turn out to good and had a big circle in the middle like a donut. Laura´s was perfect, but I think it is because she lives in France and makes crepes. Afterwards, the old man said that he would hire Laura to make rice paper and I was reduced to feeding the pigs at the back of the house.

Our first night we arrived to a hill tribe village. They are the tribes that lived in the hills way before the Vietnamese arrived to the area. Nowadays, the government designated land for them and gives them a small sum of money to keep the village running with electricity and water. The village was filled with long houses and we were to stay in a family’s home for the night. Pigs, chickens, oxen, cattle, and an elephant roamed the streets. The villagers really didn´t pay us too much mind. There was no bathroom in the area that we were sleeping. It was at least a 10 minute walk to a toilet facility at a family run restaurant down the road. As we went to bed that night, Laura and I joked about how crappy it would be if one of us got diarrhea in the middle of the night since there was no toilet and we were unfamiliar with the area. Unfortunately, Laura did end up getting sick. Poor girl got up to walk outside and get some fresh air, but ended up clothes lining herself with one of the mosquito nets draped across the room. Once she made it outside she had to try and find an area to use the bathroom where she wouldn´t have a pig or oxen sneak up on her. It was a rough night for her. (Finally, it wasn´t me who had to use the bathroom!)

The following day, Vinh informed me that I would be changing drivers. Apparently, 2 other foreigners were interested in a Mekong Delta tour which Vinh specialized in. His brother, Chan, would be my new driver. Chan was a 25 year old single guy who was 4 foot 11 inches and probably weighed 100 lbs. I was HUGE compared to him. When I first met Chan, both he and Vinh told me that I looked like their cousin. I thought that was interesting considering I look nothing like a Vietnamese person. Chan was a lot more outgoing then Vinh, but his English was not as clear. He drove well though, and that was the most important to me. Chan and Cho often called us “Happy Buddhas” and would pat our bellies. Normally, I would be a little offended, but everyone looked fat compared to Chan.

Riding on the motorcycle with the wind in your face was exhilarating. We cruised through the mountains and passed small villages. We would stop at little food stalls to have coffee, sugarcane, or tea. The people would run to the road and wave to us as we drove by. Most everyone had a smile on their faces even as they worked diligently in the rice fields.

On the second day we stopped at a petrol station to fill up. Laura and I were stretching out our “monkey bums” as the drivers called it. We went to get back on our bikes. Laura swung her leg over her bag to the other side and heard a big rip. Turns out she ripped a huge hole in the crotch of her pants all the way down her leg. It was so funny too because this day involved a lot of hiking. She was so embarrassed about the hole that she wrapped her sarong around her pants. It was so deadly hot outside and she had all these layers on trying to hike up these hills and down these waterfalls.

For lunch each day we would stop at these local restaurants. Our drivers would order a little bit of everything on the menu for us to try. It was really neat because there was no way I would have the guts to order this type of food or even know how to order it. We ate pork, beef, chicken, fish, and all sorts of vegetable platters. The food was delicious. It was so interesting to see the different eating styles. For instance, when Chan and Cho ate fish, they would shove the entire piece in their mouth and then spit out the skin and bones onto their plate. I would meticulously pick the bones out of my fish before I put the piece in my mouth. Every time I ate something, I would rub my Buddha belly and ask her to cooperate. Somehow, it seemed to work. For once, I was eating street food and drinking ice but my stomach was doing well. Laura on the other hand, was not doing so hot. I gave her some of my Immodium and told her that should stop the bathroom issue for the rest of the trip.

The third day was our longest distance of travel. We had to ride 260 km. This may not seem that long but the bikes can only go 40k in the cities and 60k on the highways. We made plenty of stops to give our bums a rest. In the afternoon we stopped at this beautiful lake which had an overlook. Laura and I walked to the viewpoint to take some photos. There were tons of Vietnamese tourists there. They all stared at us and pointed. We were getting a lot of attention in SE Asia for being foreigners. Laura especially got attention because she is 6 feet tall with blue eyes. As we were looking out at the lake, a group of people came up to us and asked us to be in their family photo. They had a professional photographer and they all stood around us for the picture. As we walked back to the motorbikes, several other people came up and asked to have a photo taken with us. Most of the people came up to Laura´s elbow or bicep. I took a few photos as well because it was just so funny. I don´t think Laura found it as amusing.

That night we ate another fabulous Vietnamese dinner. Laura and Cho were tired so they went back to the hotel while Chan and I walked around the city. I needed to get some supplies at the grocery store so he took me there. When I was browsing through the store I noticed how everyone was looking at me. I don´t think many tourists made it to this particular town and certainly don´t go to the supermarket very often. Before I knew it, I had about 7 kids following me around each aisle. When I would turn around they would run off laughing. Teenage kids would come up to me and ask me what my name was and where I was from. The Vietnamese are very well educated with a 90% literacy rate. They love to practice their English whenever they get a chance. I spent about 45 minutes in the store having small conversations with people and kids following me around. It was a little bit awkward, but interesting none the less.

The next day they took us to an old airport strip that was used by the American Soldiers. Surrounding the airfield was land that was destroyed by Agent Orange. Many of the villagers that lived in and around this particular area suffered from horrible side effects from the toxins. A lot of the babies that are born have deformities. Still today, the land has not fully grown back, but each year more and more plants fill in the areas. When we were leaving the area, Chan was talking to me about the history. He said “my grandfather was a farmer in the central highlands when the war started. The center part of Vietnam was not really affiliated with the north or the south. However, it is where most of the battles took place. When the bombs started dropping around my grandfathers land he just started running to save himself. He ran for days trying to find safety. He didn´t understand the war or what was really happening. He was just trying to survive. Turns out he ran south. Because of the direction he ran, he ended up joining with the American soldiers. There were many Vietnamese and minority people who fought on sides without even knowing what they were fighting for. I think there were many American soldiers who didn´t know what they were fighting for as well. You and me, we are both young now. It is the older generation that had to deal with it. I like you now and you like me. I like Americans. I do not like the American Government, though. I don´t even like my own government. Who are these people that we call the Government? The Government is not fighting; it is the people that fight….but why? What do we fight for? A lot of people here believe in God. But God does not give me food to eat. I work and make money. Because of this I can eat every day. No, I do not believe in God and I do not know who the government is….the only person I can believe in is Myself. I know what I need to do to survive.”

It was one of those conversations that had me thinking the rest of the day. Here is a 25 year old guy living across the world from me, and he questions faith, government, and his own life. We are of the same generation who has troubled histories and government changes ahead of us. I wonder what life will be like for both me and Chan in 20 years. I think there are many people my age who have a lot of questions about the way things have been handled and I hope that the generations to follow continue to question and challenge and progress to a more peaceful world.

During our tour I also wanted to take some time to understand the communist government of Vietnam. I have been raised to view communism as a negative thing, but it seemed to me like most people in Vietnam were happy. I asked Chan and Cho about their jobs, their rights, and their overall lifestyles. From what I saw and gathered from our conversations, Vietnam didn´t exactly seem like a communist government to me at all. People can move freely through the land, own property, and start their own business. They still had to pay for their own healthcare. Ever since Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization and tourism became a big industry, a more capitalistic mindset has taken effect. I was still confused by it all. I did some internet searching and read that Vietnam is still considered a communist government but that they have a controlled capitalistic society. I guess you can grab a piece of the pie, but if it gets too big then the government may step in for a slice.

Laura reiterated to me that it takes a lot of years for a government to stabilize and find that right balance to work well for its people. The “American War” was fought to unify the North and South of Vietnam under a communist government. However, once the war was won, there were some tough years ahead for Vietnam in getting everything in order. But now-a-days, it seems like things are working well. When I asked Chan if Vietnam was still a communist country, he told me no. He said things are much better now, and even if they call themselves a communist party, it is not the same as it was 15 years ago. I guess the easiest way for me to understand it all is if you look at a spectrum. One end is communism and the other end is capitalism. If you are 100% communist then you lose progression. If you are 100% capitalist then a lot of people will fall into the cracks and their opportunities of succeeding will drop drastically as the richer get richer. There has to be a balance of some sort. Vietnam is communist with a capitalistic edge…while America is capitalism with some social programs. Obviously, I have no background in Political Theology and this is simply the observations and questions that I have asked myself. It is interesting to me to travel to each country and see how their governments work for them….and the opinions of the local people.

At one point in the ride, the chain on our bike broke. Chan pulled over to a mechanic shop to have a look at the damage. Laura and I sat down in some chairs and waited for them to fix it. This sweet woman came up to us. She was wearing gum boots and had the classic Vietnamese wooden hat on her had with a face mask on (tons of Asians where facemasks to not catch germs). She didn´t speak any English but came over and put her leg next to Laura´s and laughed. She was trying to emphasize how much bigger we were then her. I was holding my camera and she pointed at it. Then she pointed at herself. She stood up straight, removed her facemask, and gave me the biggest smile ever. I couldn´t believe she was asking me to take her picture….I stood up immediately and snapped a shot. I showed her the image and she laughed so hard, then grabbed her shovel and ran back to work. It was one of the coolest moments for me. She was a classic Vietnamese woman and I have been dying to get a good photo of a villager, but always feel awkward taking pictures of people. I will never forget that.

On our last day of the tour, we stopped at a little shop for fresh pineapple and coffee. Chan asked us why Europeans eat each other’s faces when he sees them on TV. At first we were really confused by the question. Then we realized he was talking about kissing. Chan has never had a girlfriend before and I don´t think sexual activity is very common unless you are married. We just shrugged and said it was a type of affection that we use in our culture. It is pretty common for people to kiss each other if they are dating. Then he asked us what it tasted like?......I thought for a really long time about the question and just told him that someday he would find out.

Overall the motorcycle trip was amazing. It was one of the coolest 5 days of my trip. It was really a neat experience to hang out with 2 local guys and learn about the culture and lifestyle of the people. It gave me an opportunity to ask questions that I normally would not ask a random stranger. We tried interesting foods and drinks and drove through amazing scenery. I photographed most of the trip and wrote descriptions on Picasa so you could see the different places that we visited.

Now we are in Hoi An. This town is known for tailor made clothes. I have not been shopping much on my travels but decided it would be fun to get some things made. So far, I got a fitted coat, silk dress, 2 cotton dresses, a pair of shorts, and flip flops made. I have NO IDEA where I am going to put all of this stuff and I think I will have to ship it home. It has been a bit overwhelming trying to pick colors, fabrics, designs, etc. But it has been fun, too. So far Vietnam has been awesome. We have about 12 more days to travel up the coast to the northern areas. I am looking forward to it!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Goodbye Cambodia, Goodmorning, Vietnam!

Since the last time I blogged, I have improved immensely. We rested for a few days in the town of Battambang where I spent most of my time in bed filling up on antibiotics and salt water. I have a few more countries that I will be visiting that pose high risks of getting sick….I hope to be better prepared next time around.

After the recovery, we decided to head south and spend our last week of Cambodia on the beach. On our way there, we stopped in a small town close to Lake Tonle Sap, the largest lake in Cambodia. There are numerous “floating villages” along this lake and we wanted to visit one of them. We researched and found a village called Kompong Luang. I am really glad we chose this village because we were the only foreigners there that day. We paid a local to take us around in his wooden boat through the village to see how the everyday life was. It was such an interesting sight to see….1000s of people literally live in these huts that float. There are gas stations, restaurants, cell phone stores, farm animals, electronic stores, and churches floating together. People either hop from one hut to the next or take long wooden boats to their destination. Locals cruise around all day in boats selling produce or meat. There were kids swimming with fish nets trying to catch food for their family to sell. It was a Vietnamese village (probably refugees from the war) and everyone was extremely friendly to us. We felt like celebrities because everywhere we went kids just ran to the porches to wave and practice their English. I couldn’t help but smile as we went past huts where the elder women grinned at us with teeth filled with gold or no teeth at all. To me, it seemed like life would be so much more difficult to live like this on the water, but for them….it was all that they knew. Their livelihood was based around this lake…it is where they caught their food, and the water source for growing their produce and feeding their animals. During the changes of the rainy and dry seasons, they will take apart their homes and move them to rebuild where the lake level will remain for that season. Throughout the tour, I couldn’t help but notice how the huts were so open and there didn’t seem to be any privacy. We were able to peer into everyone’s homes as we passed by on the boat. I don’t remember seeing any mattresses for beds, only hammocks with people snoozing in them. Of course, my perverted and inquisitive mind couldn’t help but wonder the most obvious question of all – Where in the heck do these people have sex? Clearly they procreate as I saw kids of all ages EVERYWHERE, but I just couldn’t figure out where and when these people would “do it”. Yes I know, I am traveling the world and exploring other cultures and these are the types of things that I actually think about. Perhaps it is not something so private like our society keeps it. Maybe the old man yells “Hey honey, why don’t you hop onto this hammock and give me some loving before the kids come back from fishing…don’t mind the boats passing by!” Who knows how they do it…

After the floating village we hopped back on our tuk-tuk and headed back to our guesthouse. It was about an hour ride to where we needed to go. I was having one of my moments where I pondered, with my face in the breeze and thinking about the amazing village and cultural experience I had just witnessed. I was feeling healthy and back in my travel mode again. Then I saw a large group of people up ahead on the road. As we got closer we realized there had been a car accident. An SUV had flipped and a motorbike was in pieces. There were 2 foreign women banged up (it looked like a mother and daughter) and then a local girl on the ground surrounded by blood. Someone was holding a cloth to her face and she appeared to be going in and out of consciousness. I immediately jumped out to see if I could help in any way…not sure what I was going to do exactly. I ran to the foreigners and asked if they were ok, the daughter (who appeared to be around 15) just glanced at me and didn’t say anything. The older woman was now helping the seriously injured local girl. Turns out the motorbike tried to pass the SUV, but somehow they ended up colliding. Most people in the countryside of Cambodia do not follow the helmet law, and unfortunately in this case it didn’t seem like the girl was wearing one. Once I realized that I would not be able to help and was probably causing more harm than good, I began to get really lightheaded and sick to my stomach. All of the blood everywhere and the site of the injured girl being carried into someone’s car really freaked me out. I got back in the tuk-tuk and spent the next 30 minutes holding back all the fears that were coming out. It was a moment where I realized that some crazy shit could happen while traveling. What were the foreigners going to do about the accident? Was the girl going to live? If she lived, her face was certainly going to be scarred for the rest of her life. All these thoughts were racing through my head and I wanted to see my family and loved ones and be “safe” from all of these potential disasters. It is so crazy how I was having a total “high” from the floating village and then moments later I was bottoming out to fear and depression. I seriously think I am turning into a bipolar maniac on this trip, my emotions seem to be one extreme to the other. By the time we had returned to our guesthouse, I had talked myself through the stages of how anything could happen anywhere, even in my own hometown. I simply cannot think about the “What ifs” and just live in the moment. Bad shit just happens sometimes. And if something does happen….I will deal with it at that time.

The next day we arrived to the coast. We were pleasantly surprised by how beautiful the water and beaches were. Everyone raves about the beaches in Thailand, but I was excited by what Cambodia had to offer. I was so ready to lie on the beach, wade in the warm water, and catch up on reading and journal writing. When we got to the beach we set out our towels and then noticed kids from all directions running towards us. Little did we know, the beaches were swarming with kids ages 10-18 who made a business of haggling the tourists for every cent they had. At first we told them “no thanks”, but they didn’t budge. Instead of trying to sell you things, they decided to befriend you. They would lie next to you and ask questions about where you were from, if you had a boyfriend and what your city was like. We were surrounded by about 7 girls who got real comfortable around us. They spoke very good English and I soon realized that these were pretty damn smart street kids…I held my belongings tight. I hadn’t shaved my legs in a few days and they noticed that. The girls whipped out some string and offered to “thread” my legs. Threading is a type of hair removal where they rub string on your skin and it pulls out the hair from the follicle. I used to get m eyebrows threaded in USA so was excited when they said they could thread my legs for $10. When I said yes, I didn’t realize that I had sold my soul to the devil and became these beach kids next “victim”. Laura and I spent hours chatting with these girls about their daily lives. Once you got to know them you felt like helping them out, so you started buying friendship bracelets and headbands and fruit from them. Once you bought something from one girl, the other girls made you feel bad so you had to buy something from them too. After spending almost $30 I finally told them that it was ENOUGH and I had no more money. I had gone way over my daily budget. We made them promise that the next day they would leave us alone and let us relax. The following day we got to the beach and all the girls ran up to us and gave us big hugs. We made some short talk with them and headed to our chairs. A few girls asked us if we wanted pedicures or to buy fruit, but for the most part they were not as aggressive. However, a different gang of girls started hassling us because they knew of all the business we gave the other girls the day before. I was a bit more authoritative and did not budge into any sale. The girls pouted and walked away. The new mob of girls started playing cards with the first group of girls. They were behind us and taking bets on each other. One girl from the new group lost a bet in the card game but didn’t want to pay up. Just as I was getting into relaxation mode I heard a bunch of girls yelling and a lot of commotion. I turned around to see that 2 girls were on the verge of fighting only about 10 feet from my chair. The commotion continued for another 5 minutes and all the locals working the beaches came around to see what was going on. Finally one of the girls snapped and charged the other girl and next thing I knew, we were witnessing a chick brawl between the two gangs of beach girls. They were pulling hair, smashing each other’s faces in the sand and swinging limbs at one another. Some of the adults were trying to pull them off each other but the fighting continued. A few guys jumped in and toned down the fight and then a police officer showed up. One of the girls was taken away from the scene and the fighting dissolved. Within seconds, all of the girls pulled their hair back again and shook off the sand, grabbed their jewelry or food trays and headed back to haggle the tourists. I was like…OOOOKKKKAAAAYYYY! Note to self: Do not bet on a card game against a gang of Cambodian beach girls. So much for relaxing! The following day we decided to pay $15 for a boat to take us to an island nearby where there would be no loitering around. It was exactly what we were looking for…..We FINALLY got our tranquil day on the beach.

Our visa was up in Cambodia and we headed to Phnom Penh to catch a bus to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I had met a British guy named Dave when we were first in Phnom Penh and he happened to be heading to Vietnam as well. We all got tickets on the same bus and headed to the border.

I always get butterflies and excited when I am heading to another country. What sort of adventure lies ahead for me in this new place??? We were the only three foreigners on the bus to the border and the precious cabin boy was so sweet to us. He would go on and on in Khmer explaining the instructions of the border crossing to the locals. Then he would take a heaping breath and try his hardest to re-explain them in English. “Hello ladies gentlemen. We have at border I need passport. I take passport but you get back. Please do card with pen. I need passport but you get back. Thank you and good luck in your life”. He was such a sweet guy and went out of his way to make sure we were all ok. He would send us to the front of the immigration lines and constantly smile and tell us good luck. When we arrived to the border a Vietnamese man boarded the bus with a face mask and an ear thermometer. Apparently we missed the memo, because as I looked around I realized that nearly everyone on the bus was also wearing face masks. All 3 of us were seated in the last row and hadn’t noticed it before. I hadn’t paid much attention to the latest on the swine flu, but I figured that was why he was taking everyone’s temperature. He went to each person and stuck the thermometer in their ear. Then he wiped it off with this small cotton swab. He used to same swab each time as if it was actually cleaning off the germs. Since we were the last row, you can imagine how excited we were when he approached us. As he stuck it in my ear I felt the greasy thermometer go against my dirty waxy ear. Fortunately, I did not have a temperature, but lord knows what type of bacteria is chilling in my ear right now from the 100s of people that he previously tested that day at the border.

Good morning, Vietnam….actually Good afternoon. We made it! When we got off the bus in Ho Chi Ming City aka Saigon (its name before the war), we were approached by locals trying to sell us a rooms in their guesthouse. We followed this one man and he took us down a main road then slipped down an alley. We were meandering through these small narrow alleys witnessing locals hanging outside of their homes. They were playing chess, cooking up food, gossiping, kicking footballs, and playing racquetball. It was so narrow that people were running into each other. Motorbikes and bicycles were trying to get buy the chaotic scene. Laundry and potted plants were hanging from the windows and small children were running around laughing and teasing each other. I smiled the whole way to our guesthouse….I immediately felt a good vibe from the city. The guesthouses in this area are all family owned. Usually their home is the bottom and second floor and then they have rooms on the 3rd, 4th, and 5th floors. When you enter the homes you need to take off your shoes. Our particular guesthouse is a family with a new born baby. I am actually not sure who lives there as there are always new people in the living room. They always say hello and the kids practice their greetings in English. The head lady is physically challenged and has deformities with her arms. I think it is some sort of dwarf syndrome. Her sister or another relative has lazy eyes and can’t look at you straight. The newborn baby has an oblong head. They are all very nice and hospitable. I am happy to be staying in their home.

Our first day, Laura and I decided to do a walking tour of the city. The big city was a bit overwhelming at first. As we walked down the street there were 100s of buzzing motorbikes flying by and mobs of people walking everywhere. The city felt like this pulsating energized body. The streets and sidewalks were the life support of the veins. We slowly maneuvered our way onto the sidewalk and joined into the flow of the bloodstream. If you wanted to cross the street, you had to keep moving without hesitation or else you may cause an accident. From the outside it seems like mayhem but once you joined into the flow, all of the hustle and bustle seemed to mesh together successfully.

We headed to the War Remnants Museum which is known for its graphic display of photos from the “American War”. It was the first time that I had heard that term for the war. Growing up I studied about the “Vietnam War”, but they do not call it that on this side of the world. Once again, I was horrified by the photos and information that I read about. It is one thing to read something out of a textbook in school and another to re-live the moments in the country that it took place in. The museum was very one-sided and I pretty much felt like an American jackass as I walked through the exhibits. The most staggering part of the museum was the information about the Agent Orange chemical that the US dropped everywhere. Still today there are people being born with horrendous side effects from the toxins. I wondered if the people that ran my guesthouse were deformed because of the chemicals of the war.

Thanks to the Bill Clinton administration, our relations with Vietnam are doing better. The US Embassy re-opened in 1996 and Vietnam has since joined the World Trade Organization. I am looking forward to learning more about the culture and history through the next 3 weeks.