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Ha Long Bay & Sapa

95180008The events depicted in this (absurdly long) blog post occurred between the middle and end of March, 2011, in effect “straddling” the event of the last post (ha). All photos for the Ha Long Bay portion were taken on a “Doozy Sunshine” disposable camera, which actually resulted in some great images due to/in spite of its complete lack of quality.

Part I: Ready for Something Amazing

Oh my gootness. We are behind in this blog! Deearr. Well I’ll do my best to recap this 3 day trip out of Hanoi, Vietnam. We heard many people complain about the weather in Northern Vietnam at this time but we were determined to see the UNESCO World Heritage Site–Ha Long Bay–literally “Descending Dragon Bay”. Photos of the bay are jaw-droppingly beautiful. Unfortunately we have very few photos, since, as we mentioned in the previous post, our (basically brand new) camera decided to commit suicide RIGHT before we left Hanoi.

The bay is formed by thousands of limestone karsts and isles. You can choose any number of tours through the millions of tour companies on offer. We took the (typical) lazy route and booked a boat trip through our hotel, with a few night’s stay on Cat Ba Island. En route, our tour guide leans over the passenger side seat and announces that “due to the bad weather” (it’s grey and slightly drizzly…) there will be no tour boats or public ferry going out on Ha Long Bay today. And maybe tomorrow. Turns out most of the vessels are pretty old, with no navigatonal system, so if it’s even slightly cloudy or grey they just ground ‘em.

Part II: No Boats Today

Ryan and I decided to tough it out and  stay the night in Ha Long City, a total shithole of a town,to wait and see if the tour will leave the next day. We woke up and saw grey skies again and knew that no tour boats would be heading out to the island. We called “Tam”, the tour guide who was waiting with the rest of the group at their (too expensive) hotel; they were the remnants who decided to wait and still get 2 days of their 3-day tour. “Boat no leave today, maybe you catch ferry. You want ride back to Hanoi with others?”

We held out hopes of still catching the public ferry to Cat Ba Island. The weather still looked mild, though drizzly and a bit windy. The word was that the government was wary after the drowning deaths of 12 tourists in January (which apparently had nothing to do with weather). We figured if no tours were running, we could at least wait out the weather a little more and hopefully book a tour through the bay in a few days.

After a long taxi ride, several offers to take us immediately to Cat Ba for “very fair” price, lots of waiting in the drizzly weather, and having to force our cab driver to stop so he didn’t take us back to his house so his wife could shove us on a boat for the aforementioned “fair price”, we managed to buy a cheap ferry ticket and sat waiting for our boat for the 1.5 hour cruise, with the only other prospective passengers: 30-odd uniformed members of the Vietnamese military.

As we were waiting, we kept saying to each other “I hope THAT’s not the ferry”; referring to a “ship” sitting neat the ferry dock. We held out hope that the actual ferry was on its way. Then, lo and behold, our chariot arrived. It was the damn barely-a-boat contraption we had seen earlier. Part of what had so worried  us earlier is that there was not a single place for a passenger to sit, and definitely nowhere inside except the wee control box up top. As it was in the low 40s, rainy, and all we had were light jackets, we were worried.

Then it got worse. As soon as we got on board (and the Army drove their vans on) we made a bee-line up the two stories to the control box. We had been sitting outside for the several hours at this point and were ready for any small comfort. The boat crew immediately made it clear that were weren’t allowed inside, which became the all the more frustrating as he stood to the side for each and every soldier to file in, all of them making pantomimes of extreme cold, eg. rubbing their hands together and blowing on

View from the Ferry's cabin

The only surviving photo from inside the cabin, taken somewhat discreetly (though it's pretty hard to disguise the horrible winding and clicking of a disposable camera).

them etc. Courtney and I stood outside the window on the top deck, the only ones standing outside, as the boat pulled away from the dock. I was pissed and started feeling stubborn; “I’m just gonna go climb in one of their cars then!” I thought. But Courtney was persistent, knocking on the door and making the same “I’m cold!” motions the soldiers had made. Some of the soldiers just waved back cheerily through the window, seemingly oblivious to our pleas, until finally, one of the crew members let us inside.

We arrived at dock to find a large group already waiting for busses; apparently their tour boat had come over no problem (we never figured out what the hell was going on for those few days)! Earlier, we had been determined to wait for the local bus and avoid the scammers who offered rides (we were 30k from town) for $7 per person. However, now, soaked to the bone, we attempted to slide in with the tour group when their tour leader ordered them onto the busses. But the previous scam artist helpfully pointed us out and had a chat with the tour guide, so that the price was magically the same as had been quoted earlier. We paid it.

Part III: MONKEY ISLAND

We arrived in Cat Ba Town, and here’s where the blog post gets short… This place was just miserable. There’s much to do when it’s not hovering around 40; there are trails, rock-climbing and a National Park that we were set on visiting. As it was, we were just trying to stay warm and dry some clothes out in our room at the Cat Ba “Dream” (it’s totally a dream if you are a fan of black mold and residing on the same floor as a tour group of shrieking children).

And so the next few days went; all the restaurants kept the doors open, apparently thinking that if you closed them tourists would think the restaurant was “closed” as opposed to “warm”. This resulted in us eating in our room twice (one time from Duc Tuan; even eaten from tin foil, this was one of the best fish meals of my life).

On the third (or fourth, or whatever) day we booked a tour, weather be damned. It left the next day and we jumped on a boat with a couple Frenchies and a half-dozen Germans. The first stop, where we learned that this tour would be completely different than the one we were sold, was to MONKEY ISLAND. The day before, Courtney had been warned about Monkey Island by an expat who owned a restaurant in Cat Ba town. “Whatever you do,” he had said, “DON’T GO ONTO MONKEY ISLAND.” According to this guy, 6 tourists had already been bitten by the monkeys in March alone; like so many other “Monkey Islands” we had heard about (in Thailand and Cambodia), the monkeys become a tourist attraction, tourists come and feed the monkeys, the monkeys get aggressive… So, when we reached the island, we declared our intentions of staying on the boat. “The guy told us NOT to go onto Monkey Island,” we said. “Come on, be adventurous!” the Germans said, making us feel weak and very American in our preoccupation with things like safety from rabies.

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A clue as to as to what befell Monkey Island? The sign reads "To Sell Food For Monkey"

We got off the boat. The monkeys came closer and closer, nibbling on pieces of trash, as our new friends edged closer as well, snapping away with their cameras, until finally the monkeys finally ran off into the depths of the jungle. That excitement over, we waited in the rain for the boat to return, wandering through the ruinous buildings on the island, which apparently had been the headquarters of some sort of natural park (that is, until the MONKEYS took over). There was not one building without broken windows or a generally dilapidated and weather-beaten appearance. We kept saying to each other, “this is probably what Jurassic Park looked like after it closed”.

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Doozy of a Jellyfish

After the boat returned, we went to a cave with a concrete, well-lit walkway, had some lunch, which was awesome even though it was prepared in the back of a tiny boat by a perhaps teenage cook, and headed to a floating fishing “village” to do some kayaking. Miraculously, at the very moment we stepped off the boat it stopped raining. We hopped in a double kayak, confident in our abilities having done this before and… wait, what the hell? We couldn’t control a thing. We both paddled at the same time and would go left, or right, or in a circle. The rest of the group zoomed around the Bay like pros, and we were struggling to catch up, and getting soaked by our paddles in the process. We did this for an interminable amount of time until the guide set us free and we could return to the boat. On the way back, experimenting with various magical incantations and reverse-logic (“maybe if YOU paddle on the right and I paddle on BOTH sides, we’ll go STRAIGHT!”) methods, Courtney pointed out a plastic bag looking thing beneath our boat. To our amazement, heaving just under the surface, was the biggest jellyfish either of us had ever seen outside of an aquarium. We snapped a photo with the disposable camera and returned, now soaked, to the boat. Thankfully for my pride, no one else seemed to avoid the dousing. We spent some of the remainder of the trip on the top of the boat, since the rain was still holding off for a while, and this was just breathtaking… we wished we had been able to stay outside the entire time.

After we got back from the tour we decided to give it one more day to get sunny so we could tour the park. When we woke up it was still awful and cold, and the power was out in our area of town, so we said “Screw this” and decided to try and catch the early boat. On the bus as we headed the port, both of us holding mental middle fingers up to the Cat Ba, the sun broke through the clouds for the first time in over a week, bathing the island in a ethereal glow.

Sometimes, no matter how stupid and trivial the reasons are, it is hard not to feel sorry for oneself.

Part IV: Overstaying our Welcome- Sapa

After a return to Hanoi to dry off on the only sunny day in March, we headed to Ninh Binh. Somewhere in our Hanoi trips we had to renew our visas, since we were about to overstay our 30 days. Then we returned back to Hanoi again, struggling with whether we should visit the last place left on our Vietnam list: Sapa. Since the weather had been so unrelentingly awful, we were somewhat persuaded to just call it quits for Vietnam and head onto Laos, which neither of were really ready to do (which was strange since Vietnam had done nothing but dump rain on us for the last three weeks). After several sessions of the usual SiggMaxcy Indecision Committee, it was decided that we would head to Sapa on the overnight train, spending a night in Bac Ha, since we were just in time for the Sunday market that our German Ha Long buddies had told us about. Our departure was delayed a day since the sleeper cars were all booked up for the day we wanted. but that just left more time in Hanoi, and I would never complain about that (except for the incessant honking).

Before leaving, we hauled our bags to Quan An Ngon for one last meal. After we finished another excellent round of fancy-ish street food, we left for the nearby train station. When we boarded the train our faces both fell; there was not one, but two small children in our cabin (we ain’t kid haters, I swear). In the end, the family turned out to be the best cabin-mates we could have, even though neither of us probably slept very much at all in the end.

IMG_3337We got off the train and hopped on one of the many minibuses waiting to ferry tourists to the Sunday Bac Ha Market, where each week all the hill tribes from nearby would congregate. The villagers in the hills of Northern Vietnam consist of many different groups, among them the H’mong (who are also spread throughout Laos, China and Thailand), Red D’zao, Flower H’mong, Muong, and many many more, all of them known for their colorful and interesting traditional clothing. Even though none of them are actual ‘tribes’, you will still hear highland groups commonly referred to as ‘hill-tribes’ through most of Indochina.

Simply put, Bac Ha was an awful, disheartening experience. We had breakfast at the hotel we planned on staying at, where we got nothing we asked for and were charged for things we never received. The minibus which took us their was also heading to Sapa the same day so we just went back and told we’d be joining them. Then we headed into the market.

IMG_3307It was still early, so it was quiet and one could wander the stalls mostly unmolested. After bargaining unsuccessfully for a few blankets, we headed to the livestock market, which Courtney tried to walk as quickly as possible through, especially when we hit the puppy area.

We decided to sit down at one of the small stalls and have coffee. The market soon started to fill up with busloads of tourists, and so we started to figure out just what kind of a tourist circus/charade we’d let ourselves get into. I take that back, we still had much to learn about the level of tourist bullshit we had gotten ourselves into. I noticed that the coffee making woman had two glasses out for coffee; I told her that we only wanted one. As we waited for the coffee, we nibbled on some peanuts and dried coconut that the coffee-stand women had actually put directly into our hands (as in, grabbed our hands and put the food directly into them). Having been in Vietnam for well over a month, we were somewhat used to this sort of unnecessarily forceful behavior. A Polish couple from our minibus sat down next to us and started ordered some drinks as well. we should have known we were in trouble as soon as the vendor waved off a Vietnamese couple tried to pay publicly, she waved them off so we wouldn’t see the amount (usually this just means we’re paying the “tourist tax”, overpaying from the locals by 5,000 dong or so, which is a quarter). So we got up to pay, and the women informed us that the total was around $15. For coffee. In VIETNAM. When we balked, she explained that the tiny plates of peanuts that we were given were $5 each (not to mention $3 for 2 coffees, plus a $1+ for a water. In VIETNAM). In the end, not wanting to cause a scene (of “lose face” as they say here), we paid, as did the Polish couple. In the end, in our ridiculous, petty way, we got our revenge: every time I would walk past her coffee stand, I would walk up to any tourists and let them know that their peanuts could set them back more than their night’s accommodation. The market was now officially a tourist zoo; a soon as someone would step into the market, they would be completely surrounded by women selling cheap mass-produced version of local handicrafts.

The only good thing I have to say about the Bac Ha Market is that they probably don’t eat THIS:

Tourists ServicedSo we were the only ones who were early to the minibus, waiting impatiently to get the hell out of there. By the time we arrived in Sapa, some of the frustration with Bac Ha had worn off, and we were able to appreciate its dramatic beauty, which is not unlike  a Swiss resort in the Alps. We suddenly realized why so many tourists decided to congregate here.

IMG_3454The mini-bus did it’s normal stop at the predetermined hotel, to try and lure anyone not having reservations, before dropping us at the Cat Cat View, one of three in the “Cat Cat” family of hotels. Once we sorted out which Cat Cat we were supposed to be staying at, the receptionist took us to a series of rooms. Considering that this was to be the most ($30!) that we had spent on ANY accommodation in the entire country, we were determined to be happy with this, especially given the temperature outside; we assumed we’d be spending a lot of time here. After showing us a couple decent rooms, she took us to the elevator and hit ‘7’, which was strange considering all the hotels we had seen had only a few stories. The elevator opened up to a rooftop patio (read: ‘magic garden’) with trees and flowers, which continued on up a series of stairs. At the top was the hotel’s restaurant, 3 levels of mountain-view rooms, and what was to be our own personal terrace and the most spectacular view we could have imagined. The room was nice in the shabby way of a nice hotel that has such a gorgeous view doesn’t really NEED nice rooms. And it had a fireplace. It was kind of like the hotel from the ‘Shining’, but since that type of place speaks to our Pacific Northwestern-ness, we were pretty thrilled.

IMG_3407The next day we rented a motorbike, to be ready in case of a break in the weather, which came for a few hours in the afternoon. We rode up to the Silver Waterfall with a picnic lunch from the ‘Baguette and Chocolate’ cafe, and after that rode out towards… well, we didn’t know, but near the end of the days’ wanderings Courtney was challenging park rangers in a ping-pong match.

But it wasn’t all fun and games. Even more so than Bac Ha, Sapa is billed as the place to go for ‘trekking'; this word usually means not only ‘hiking’ but also ‘visiting villagers in some pathetic search for the exotic’. This activity seems to take place in all those above-mentioned areas, from Northwestern Vietnam all the way to Northern Thailand (where we had first heard about it). In Sapa, however, the tables have turned. The business of trekking has proved so lucrative for many of the surrounding villages that you will literally get stalked by persuasive women in traditional garb. As soon as we left our hotel the first day, there was a H’mong woman and young girl. They quickly introduced themselves in broken English but said nothing more; we said hello, and moved on. Then we noticed that we were being followed. We did the usual; we changed our route. Then when they continued to follow us we stopped and politely told them that we weren’t going to buy anything and so they were wasting their time. Every once in a while someone from another ethnic group would approach us (usually this meant getting physically run into while the vendor shouted “You buy meeeee? Shopping?? What your name?” in a sing-song voice), but our little duo held on. After telling them a few times that their time was wasted on us, we finally ducked into a (power-less but fireplace-warmed) restaurant for lunch and we were soon joined by the Polish couple who had come into the same place by chance. We pointed out our stalkers. They seemed confused, as if they hadn’t been harrassed at all since they arrived. When we left lunch and said goodbye to the couple, they continued to follow us to every place we went in town, never saying a single word. That is, right until we were entering our hotel… then the sale pitch began, even though it was the same one we had heard a hundred times from everyone else. We can’t imagine that this sales technique had worked before (though we were tempted a few times to just buy something if they would go away).

That night we lost power a few times… 3 times proved to be the magic number for power loss in the coming days.

I’ll make this last bit real quick… Our third day we visited the “village” of Cat Cat. Surely at one point it had been a real village, but situated as it was a single kilometer’s walk from Sapa, that point must have been long ago. Though the villagers seemed as destitute as many others we had seen, all the walkways had been turned into concrete sidewalks, and the village center had become a “cultural performing arts center”. Every home now sold the same mass-produced “authentic” handicrafts. It was one thing to see how the Vietnamese government (who handled the concessions for all the villages, you had to buy a ticket for each and it was never stated how much the villages received) exploited the minority groups for their tourism potential, it was another thing entirely to see the tour-bus folks blithely handing out candy to the dirty-cheeked village children and taking their pictures, as if the one thing they needed was some tooth-rot in exchange for an appearance in someone’s “Exotic Trip to Asia” scrapbook (they should just sell pictures of dirty half-naked babies at Scrapbooks ‘R Us). The next day… sigh… we motorbiked out to one of the villages (sorry other travelers, I can’t remember which) that the tour companies sell “treks” to, just to see what these chumps were purchasing. Once again, it was a trip to a town that now supported itself fully on tourism; we watched as the folks got out of their minivans and “trekked” to the village, where they were immediately accosted by dozens of vendors. Not that our cynicism exempted us from this, it just made us bike right on through… I’m sure there are interesting cultural experiences to be had through conscientious and responsible tour agencies, but we sure didn’t see any.

On the way back, passing through a rural crossroads where vendors usually waited for minibuses to empty out, we remembered, “mangoes!” We had bought a bunch of tiny mangoes to give to any children we happened upon, prompted by our over-sensitivity to the candy-giving (and probably guilt from our own motorcycle/orphanage trip. ugh). So we turned around and headed back to the crossroads, where a couple of women waited with a group of children. Here it is, my ridiculous brain imagined, our one interaction in Sapa that won’t be dictated by a cash transaction. Just people, right?

Courtney was talking to the children and handing mangoes out, while I parked the bike. As I approached I began to make out the children’s words.

“Money!” they cried, grabbing at the mangoes, “Money! Money!”

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In our element: Cuc Phuong National Park

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Boat! In a Cave!

On our never-ending quest (mostly in Vietnam) to avoid the throngs of other tourists, we took a mini-bus three hours south to Ninh Binh, a lovely small  town and a nice break from the incessant honking of Hanoi. The food specialty in the area is goat meat, which (much to Ryan’s chagrin) we never got a chance to try. The main draw of this area is Tam Coc (“three caves”) located about 20 K from the city. Although we’d heard horror stories of too many tourists and aggressive touts, we enjoyed our incredibly relaxed 2 hour boat ride along the river and under the caves. (Ryan: the shtick on the ride back is that someone else takes over the rowing while the original rower brings out a slew of handicrafts for you to buy. We dreaded this bit, but when it came time we actually bought something… then only slightly regretted it after the rower/seller pocketed the tip meant for the young kid forced to row while she hawked her goods).

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We only got this nerdy photo because someone offered to take our picture.

Cuc Phuong National Park is about 1.5 hours away from NB, so we rented a moto and scooted over for the night. Luckily we were only on the highway for about 30 minutes (totes terrifying…lots of large fast buses that don’t give two shits about you or your proximity to the ground) and the rest of the trip on mellow back roads that pass through small villages. The weather, which was constantly threatening to ruin our trip in North Vietnam, stayed pretty calm and cloudy.

Much of our time in Vietnam was spent alone, unlike Thailand or Cambodia where we constantly ran into people to chat to. It was odd. Vietnam tourists tend to stick to themselves and follow the designated tourist path. We naturally fell into a sort of lonely rhythm. Luckily we broke this pattern while in Cuc Phuong by meeting a lovely, equally cynical British couple and chatted over beers in the tiny restaurant. It was really an outdoor covered pavilion serviced by a few Vietnamese women. At dusk, a tour group of about 50 Vietnamese teenagers arrived, shouting and chanting around a bonfire. Those crazy kids!

Anyhoo, Cuc Phuong was superb. Let me rip off the description for you…

Established in 1962, Cuc Phuong is the oldest national park in Vietnam. Cuc Phuong boasts engaging cultural and wildlife heritage and enchanting scenery. Magnificent limestone mountains rise up majestically from the green rice-terraces and traditional stilt houses of the Muong hill-tribe. Covered in a dense forest they form a habitat for some of Asia’s rarest species.

Want to know what species? Gibbons, leaf monkeys, and the slow loris to name a few. Did we see any in the wild? Nope. But we DID see over 15 types of gibbons and langurs in the Endangered Primate Rescue Center. The animals have all been rescued and live in large enclosures, graduating to “semi-forest”, breeding and eventually being re-introduced to the wild. They all honestly seemed pretty happy. (I don’t know how you can really tell that, but it felt very different from a zoo. The swingin’ guys were quickly floating to and fro, and they all seemed stoked to eat the delicious leaves the park employees delivered to them). (Ryan:  One thing we were really impressed by was the fact that the primates were actually flourishing; there were baby gibbons and langurs everywhere, which of course were adorable).

On our way out (with the aforementioned Brits) we were surprised and delighted by an unusual round of singing from our primate friends. Wooooop!

A few highlights of the trip for us were the 20K motorbike ride stretching through the dense jungle to reach our rustic bungalows and the few hours of hiking around the park. Sometimes it looked and felt like Oregon! Which, admittedly, is probably why we enjoyed it so much.

One strange detail I want to remember, and since this is basically my public journal about our trip, readers have to suffer along with me…Poaching continued to be a huge problem in the park. According to Wikipedia, “In the past the park was home to Asiatic Black Bears, wild dogs, and tiger, but over hunting and lack of prey have most led to the loss of these species.” While playing cards on our bungalow porch late at night, Ryan and I heard a series of gunshots out in the woods. Creepy, since there was no electricity in the park past 10 pm and you are basically alone out in the dark woods. But besides the spooky feeling we just felt sad, especially since the Primate Center guide had told us that poaching had finally been eradicated in the park, and for once we wanted to believe something like that could happen.

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Hoi An to Hue: Three Days Late and 8 Million Dong Short

The events in this  blog post took place in the 2nd week of March 2011. Anyone reading the blog (if there are any) will notice a curiously increasing difference between the posting date and our trip dates… The posts are already written, shoved in notebooks and the back of novels… they’re just waiting to be matched up with photos and given some finishing touches. So we’re going to attempt shoving out the rest of these posts in the next WEEK, before it ends up that we’re home and still writing about crap that no one cares about, the least of all us… Thanks for paying attention. All the photos can be seen here.

“I’m hurtling full speed down Highway 1… in the back of a hired minivan, horn honking constantly, heading up the center line into oncoming traffic. During the war, Highway 1 was said to be dangerous snipers, sappers, ambushes, command-detonated mines, the usual perils of guerilla insurgencies. I can’t imagine it’s an y less dangerous now. Understand this… The thing to do is keep up a constant attack with the horn. A beep means ‘keep doing what you’re doing, change nothing, make no sudden moves, and everything will probably be fine. It does not mean ‘Slow down’ or ‘Stop’ or ‘Move to the right’ or ‘Get out of the way’ If you try to do these things on Highway 1 after hearing a car horn behind you – if you hesitate, look back over your shoulder, slow down, or even falter for a second – you will immediately find yourself in a burning heap of crumpled metal somewhere in a rice paddy. The horn means simply, “I’m here!” – Anthony Bourdain, A Cook’s Tour

So… here we were on the same highway, strapped to the back of a couple motorbikes, horns honking all around us as our drivers pulled directly into oncoming traffic to overtake black-smoke-spewing trucks. “Today we go TOP GEAR!” shouted Leo, our motorbike guide, an “Easy Rider”, a name that used to mean something long ago, before anyone with a motorbike and a little English started shuttling tourists around the Central Highlands on the back of motorcycles.

But first, I should backtrack….

IMG_2205There’s a certain conveyor belt feeling to the North-South (or visa versa, I suppose) travel route in Vietnam. Yeah, we’re all on the same path, and we could get (and have gotten) into all sorts of discussions about the beaten path and the no-so-beaten-path and the beaten-to-death-with-a-stick path. But Vietnam is so attuned to getting your tourist dollar that this question almost becomes moot; “traveling independently” is a nice wish at best.

At the same time sometimes you just want to not care about where the tour bus set is going and just have an interesting experience, whatever may come out of it.

Courtney and I have banged our heads against this more often than not here, because of the aforementioned same-same path we’re all on, but also because I have been working so much. It’s easy to get into a routine when you have mounds of work ahead of you; it’s hard to think about much else, let alone what city you’re going to be in the next day.

Ryan’s routine, Vietnam version: Get up, have breakfast, work, maybe some sight-seeing, lunch, work, beers, work, crappy movie on pirated HBO, sleep (can’t sleep? work).

This first became an issue in Nha Trang, a place that normally wouldn’t have held our attention for more than two days, and we were there a few hours shy of a week, which was mostly spent with me huddled over the laptop. Nha Trang was redeemed by a vibrant city just blocks outside the tourist bubble and Vinpearl Land.

But now we had moved on, and after a brief stop in the curiously un-touristy city of Quy Nhon (if you’re heading there, look up the Hai Yen Hotel, those people are the nicest folks ever!) we had arrived in Hoi An.

IMG_2232Hoi An is just wonderful, in a Venice sort of way; by that I mean, it’s effing beautiful, but it’s like Disneyworld. Oh, there’s a real city there buried beneath the postcard-perfect ruinous beauty, but it’s all geared towards your tourist dollar. Every restaurant serves the city’s signature dishes, cao lau, white rose, fried wontons (and we loved every single one), and almost every shop in the Old Town is now a tailor (no joke), to capitalize on some idea that all the great cheap tourists have somehow congregated here.

So after a few days of “what do we do?”, we just embraced it. People come here for cheap tailor made clothes? OK, I got a 3pc suit for dirt cheap (and it’s the most beautiful piece of tailoring I’ve ever seen, I want to sleep at night nuzzled next to it’s silk lining*) and Courtney got a winter coat and some pants. All made in a day, with fittings.

IMG_2257Hoi An is great place to learn about Central Vietnamese cuisine? Sign us up for that cooking Class (@Red Bridge Cooking School; despite not ever cutting up our own veggies or really preparing anything ourselves I’d still recommend it).

You say that the best way to take a tour of Vietnam’s countryside and highlands is by motorbike (AKA with the “EasyRiders”)? Sold.

COURTNEY: The next step in the process was finding a guide that we were comfortable with. After doing some internet research, we stumbled upon “Mr. Leo” who had good reviews and was asking a reasonable price for the three day journey to Hue. He offered (slash…demanded…ignored red flag #1) to meet us the next day to chat about the trip (and then called about four more times that night to “helpfully” remind us to “watch out for fake Easy Rider” -ryan). Mr Leo arrived about four hours early to our hotel for our meeting, red-eyed, cracked out from an all night ride and in need of a night’s sleep. Oh deeearr….

RYAN: Despite our mis-givings about our first meeting (and the fact that we found one horrible review after we had already thrown down a wad of ca$h), we signed up. After all, who among us has been in top form after a night of no sleep and after a handful of Sting (yet another type of heart-stopping energy drink here)? Leo met us after our last visit with our tailor, again early, waiting with the bike and rain gear for us.

Leo & Me w/my badass 150cc clutchless manual 4-speed Yamaha Nuovo. Hell yezzzzzz betches.

We got on the bikes, Courtney riding on the back with Leo,  and set off. Everything went great in the beginning, even Leo’s ploy to have me give a flower to Courtney since it was Woman’s Day in Vietnam (which apparently is the only day that women don’t have to work all day AND do everything at home as well) seemed like a nice gesture even if he was a bit too insistent on it. Then came Leo’s first test as a “guide” when we stopped to see some local ethnic minorities. As we peered awkwardly into their home from the door, Leo’s enlightened us on their way of life: “They do nothing” he said. “What do they eat?” Courtney asked. Leo shrugged.

The real annoyance started when we arrived at our hotel for the night up in the North-Central Highlands. We moved into our room after a weird negotiation session between Leo and the staff. Then we had some beers with him and his hilarious friend “Eddie Murphy”, and even though we had obviously booked with him in the end, the conversation mostly consisted of him talking about how he was a “real” Easy Rider and how he “only worked for charity”, and asking us (more like interrogating) why we talked to others before booking him. We soon learned that even though Leo is over the top with the protection of “his” brand, he wasn’t the only one. Other people on motorbike trips were steered away from talking to us by their drivers (true or not, Leo told us stories about getting into fights with other drivers for letting their clients talk to each other) who seemed fearful that we would chat about prices or which guide was better. In any case, it started to feel like being held hostage; since our guide was not exactly the greatest conversationalist we felt like hanging out with someone, anyone else, yet the other groups or travelers were all being forced to hang out with their driver and ONLY their driver. Lameballs. It seemed that despite the omnipresence of capitalism had wormed their way through Vietnamese culture, these guys hadn’t quite gotten the grasp of the whole competition thing (and the whole “real” vs. “fake” easy Rider thing wasn’t helping).

IMG_2461 Even though out night had been underwhelming we held out some hope; we really didn’t have any other choice. We knew were were visiting an orphanage and Leo had bought some candy to give to them, which we hated the idea of. Instead we headed into the town to pick up schoolbooks and a few shuttlecocks. First we visited the village’s bathing spot, a pretty spectacular set of rapids. Things seemed to be looking up. Then we arrived at the orphanage, where Leo took out the candy along with the things we had bought. Neither of us felt we could deny the kids candy after they saw the bags. I gave the books to the teacher, and then Leo started dictating how many pieces of candy to give to the kids! Needless to say, it was uncomfortable, as was the next stop in the village, where we were swarmed by parents with their naked babies with outstretched hands. We gave out the rest of the candy and toys and wandered off by ourselves, despondent.

IMG_2533 The rest of trip was actually quite great. We started heading through even more beautiful scenery and wonderful backroads, visiting a rubber tree plantation, made awesome by a local who happened to be wandering by and who showed us the rubber coming out, which had the quality of Elmer’s glue. We had a nice lunch, one of the greatest soups we had eaten yet.

When we hit the highway on our way back, Leo actually started showing his talents, and this is what I appreciated most. As busses and trucks roared in and out of oncoming traffic, Leo would guide me with signals and kept us all really safe, despite the reputation of the “Easy Riders” as being more reckless than your average Vietnamese driver. We ended the day with a tour of Marble Mountain by his sister; it’s a truly haunting and beautiful mountain with a temple complex dug right into it and holes in the top from U.S. bombing (China Beach, the 1st place the army landed at, is right outside). Then we had dinner back with Leo’s family and, hoping to not recreate the previous night, said goodbye early and paid a ridiculous sum to hit up a bar in no-so-nearby Danang.

IMG_2655The next morning Courtney and I both rode on the backs of bikes as we headed over the Hai Van Pass, a particularly beautiful and dangerous (much more so in the past) stretch of Highway 1. At the top were several left over bunkers and views South to Danag and north towards Hue, our destination. My driver frequently became impatient with Leo’s more restrained approach towards passing, and several times went around other cars on blind curves, only to be loudly chided by Leo. As we approached Hue, it started raining… and then Leo took us to a hotel that he had connections with (this is the most common “scam” any traveler will face) instead of ours, but then drove us down the street to the hotel we had actually booked. We said farewell, and despite our slight troubles, we felt a twinge of sadness at separating and both gave Leo big hugs.

Cyclo Stalker

Cyclo Stalker

Then we were in Hue. And we were hating it. Not only was this the beginning of actual bad weather (in the highlands one expects some drizzle) but it seemed that this was the sort of city so overrun with tourists that the locals didn’t just dislike tourists, they hated them. When we toured around the citadel cyclo drivers would actually stalk you, hounding you to ride with them.

We left after a day, having stocked up on rain coats… These would come in handy over the next few weeks…

IMG_2318 *Visit Mr. Xe; can’t remember the address, but it doesn’t matter since everyone knows him. He might be the only gay tailor (or “ladyman” as some women we met called him) in Hoi An, of that I’m not sure, but the man does some fine work and he was very concerned that we were happy with the final product. We highly recommend him, as long as you are okay with a small amount of man-handling (not more than the usual, I think?); I may even order a winter coat and have him ship it to the States.

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IT’S REAL! :: SuperVinpearlLand

End of February, 2011

Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to be 10 years old again, rich, famous and on an incredible no-downer drug trip in a tropical location all at once? It can happen. You only have to travel to Nha Trang, Vietnam and buy a ticket to Vinpearl Land.

**As I read in a blog before going to this magical land, I have to copy that writer’s sentiment: This was NOT a cultural experience. Not at all. It was tacky, cheesy, over-priced and ridiculous. But MAN it was the most fun I’ve had in a long time.

Ryan and I had been stuck for a few days in Nha Trang while he finished up some work. We’d been trying to time our visit to VinPearl so that it fell on a weekday vs. a weekend, but work had made that impossible. On Sunday, as we rounded the corner to the entrance in a taxi, our faces both drained of all color. I had never in my life seen such a long line. Seriously. And not only was this a long, snaking line, it looked intense, cramped and sweaty. No sign of movement. Flat lined.

Since we had been looking forward to this for days, we decided to do some adjusting to our schedule, exchange our train ticket for Tuesday and give it another go on  Monday. The security guard told us “much less people” so we rounded the corner again the next day with crossed fingers. Score! Not a soul in sight.

IMG_1983I should mention that the entrance to VinPearl is located a few kilometers (that’s right…I’m using K’s instead of M’s, don’t hate) outside the city of Nha Trang, on the mainland. You wait for a sky tram (supposedly the longest cable car ride over the ocean in the world) to ferry you across the ocean and over to the island of VinPearl, which not only holds the amusement and water park, but also a shmancy resort with private beach.  Since I was accustomed to riding the tram at OHSU, I thought this little capsule that went over the ocean for 15 minutes would be no sweat. Look at my face. It was scary/awesome!IMG_1982

We couldn’t have picked a better day to visit. It was hot enough to not feel chilled while riding the water rides, and as I mentioned there were barely any other tourists around. The place feels set up to accommodate the hordes, though.

Ryan immediately rode a medieval looking contraption that spins and hurls your body upside down high in the air (Ryan’s note: amazing views of the bay, even though they were upside down!). Fun times, for him, but what we were really aiming for was the 20+ slides in the water park. We moseyed over, locked our bag up, and began touring the different offerings. First IMG_2041was a pretty lame rainbow slide but a good initiation for the others. We dove right into the body slides. Bad idea. We went side-by-side on two similar slides and as soon as the body hurtling, wedgie-inducing ride was over we looked at each other and admitted we hated it. Ryan got a gnarly looking cut on his arm from that slide. Fortunately for us, there were many more thrilling raft water slides to partake in (Ryan: including our favorite, the soon-to-be-insensitively-named Tsunami, stay tuned for a video).

IMG_2044The employees were either in short supply or they operated on a skeleton crew during the week (or in slow season) so different clusters of rides were running at different times. We checked the schedule, planned the day, and spent the next 5 hours running around like maniacs, squealing, bruising our feet running up the stairs and barreling down these huge chutes. I’ve never experienced a water park with no lines. Totes wicked.

Not only does SuperVinpearl Land (our new name for it) have an excellent water park, they also have a private beach, with palapas, fine white sand and calm water.IMG_2016There’s MORE. A better than expected aquarium (Ryan: in fact, an amazing aquarium with a people mover that took us underneath the water through a “series of tubes”). IMG_2050

An “indoor game” auditorium, with FREE games (Ryan: OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD). Anything you want to play…free. Dance Dance Revolution, air hockey, bumper cars, a game where you ride a plastic horse and my favorite, this little beauty, “Screaming Challenge.” Can you imagine a busy day at the arcade, with kids going wild on this thing? You SCREAM LOUDLY to win. Kids have so much more fun these days, I swear. IMG_2081

We were hesitant to leave, especially since a line for the tram back to the city was forming, but we figured that 7 hours at a theme park was probably good. Oh one more thing…they serve very basic “fast food” there, but what else do you really want to eat at a Disney/Epcot/Vegas-style theme park other than fries and fried chicken?

IMG_2008 Ryan might censor that photo (Ryan: hell no. Look at this bronzed god… the god of…uh,  fast food, beer, and television-watching, apparently)

Nha Trang:

While at first we loathed the small incredibly touristy blocks of NT immediately surrounding our guesthouse, eventually we broke the mold, rented a moto, discovered the beach, and fell in love with the city. Okay maybe not love. I liked it, though, a lot. There was enough there to keep us entertained for nearly a week.

You do sort of feel pushed along through the tourist trail here, as in much of the north-south journey along Vietnam’s coast. We followed the pack and took the motorbike about 6 KM out of town to Thap Ba Hot Springs, a well-organized mud and hot spring bath mecca. I don’t know what I expected…the mud to feel thicker, maybe? But this particular mud was warm and water-y.

IMG_1864

Later dudes!

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Saigon and Mui Ne–a lil’ late

Mid-February 2011

Saigon is insane, but feels oddly manageable…once you figure out how to cross the street, that is.  (Slowly and deliberately, fyi. Nobody stops for you, but thankfully they swerve around you.)

It's hard to tell... We took our first and probably only Cyclo ride–a bicycle with a little cab up front–which was terrifying and uncomfortable, since Ryan and I both crammed into one tiny compartment. I only wish I’d been quicker with the camera to take video while we plowed through the red light at an intersection while a wall of motos came rushing at us.

We stayed in the backpacker’s area–Pham Ngu Lao. We thought it would be annoying like Bangkok’s Khao San but we ended up really enjoying the area. Street-side beers, lots of good food, and the biggest, craziest yogurt place I’ve ever seen. They go ga-ga for fro-yo!Yoghurt Palace

One thing we did that won’t be leaving my mind soon is our visit to the War Remnants Museum where you get a big dose of reality by learning about atrocities of The “American War”-as it’s known here. There were some exhibits I couldn’t even stomach, like the birth-defects-due-to-Agent-Orange-preserved fetuses. Very eye-opening, shocking and sad. Some of the literature was hard-core propaganda (here’s an example: referring to VC photographers as “Vietnamese Martyr-Journalists”) and very biased, but all you have to do is look in an American history book to see our own biases/views of what happened. <big heavy sigh>

We moved on after a few days to the beach town, Mui Ne. IMG_1740 A gorgeous stretch of beach turned resort haven.  At the risk of sounding like a spoiled brat, we are pretty much over beaches at this point. We get bored and sweaty, so then we try to be active and get pissed off because it’s just too hot to do anything. What really kills our desire to stay in a town like this is when you can’t find good food–especially in an area where fresh fish is in abundance. We never found it. (Sad trombone.) The best luck we had was at a stall of shacks, which was high on ambiance but came at the cost of raising your feet off the sand to avoid rats. I’m amazed at how accustomed I’ve become to those little buggers! (Not to say I don’t still squeal when I see them at say…the internet cafe…running over my keyboard…)

Sorry for the delay in posts–if anyone is actually reading this. Internet has been slow or non-existent in Vietnam. I’m at a speedy cafe now though so I’ma bust some out!

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Kompong Cham, Kratie, and weeee’re ouutttaaa heeere

Kompong Cham is a town that nobody visits. Which is kind of sad, because it’s lovely, but also nice…the town is mercifully left alone and it continues on with its normal non-touristy business.

The big attraction in KC is the bamboo bridge.Crossing the bamboo bridge Locals build it every year by hand after the wet season! You might wonder how much a bamboo bridge can fit. A few pedestirans? A couple crazy moto drivers? All this and more…like a van. When a vehicle drove past us on our bikes, we had to edge ourselves to the side of the bamboo, hovering and wavering over the Mekong River. Awesome!

The bridge leads to an island that has to be the friendliest place on Earth. Wait, is that Disney’s bullshit theme? Disney has nuthin’ on this town—the kids dashed out of their houses, big grins on their faces, shouting HELLO and waving wildly to us. It was amazing–we felt like  rock stars.

One thing we got used to in Cambodia was being on Cambodian bus time. If they tell you a bus takes 5 hours, it’s more like 7. So our 4/6 hour bus ride north lands us in Kratie, another small Mekong town but the big draw here was freshwater dolphins. The Irrawaddys are on the verge of extinction, sadly, so protection methods are in effect i.e. no more fishing on this particular stretch of the river. We took a small boat out and surprisingly saw quite a few (fast) glimpses of grey silver and heard water bursting out of blowholes. Our boat driver offered to take us up the river to a swimming hole for $3. Yes!

Swim break after dolphin watchingWe rented another moto that day, and man it is nice to have our own wheels. Moto-rin'.

We wonder about getting a scooter for Madison. Would drivers make way for us? Would it be too cold for most of the year? Things to consider…

After Kratie we took the quickest route to Phnom Pehn–“4″ hours via mini-bus. I had visions of getting a good seat. HA! We got crammed in the back, natch, and started counting how many people they could fit in our built-for-11 van. 19! (We were a little sad we didn’t reach the 20 threshold. Just for record keeping’s sake.) As soon as Ryan and I piled in the locals started snickering at us (still not sure why, but we just smiled) and whispering “farang.” Sometimes we are hilarious and we don’t even try!

We were sad to leave Cambodia. It is truly a special country and I know this won’t be our last time here.Sunset over the Mekong

Next up, Vietnam!

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Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor

Oh, hey there! While most of you are (or…were) piled under inches or feet of snow, we are becoming exhausted every day by the heat. Two extremes.  By simply walking for 10 minutes to downtown Siem Reap at 5 pm, Ryan’s entire back is drenched in sweat. I’m trying to avoid being a stinky farang, but daaaang. I curse what my friend Sam calls my English Rose skin, while Ryan gets all tan and more resistant to the sun.

I’m not complaining though (except to Ryan, when it gets really awful) because we are seeing some incredible stuff here! (more…)

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Kampot, Kep and Bokor National Park

Heading east from Shianoukville we arrived in Kampot after a two hour mini-bus ride. Kampot’s a small town with a winding river down the middle and lots of leftover French colonial architecture. There is a small alley where most of the guesthouses and small eateries exist and thrive off Westerners.

The real jewel of this area, though, is Kep. Ahhhh, Kep. We hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us the 25 miles or so there and although you eat a lot of dirt and inhale noxious  petrol fumes, it was well worth the scenery along the way. More chickens, cows, children, large wooden houses built on stilts with hammocks swinging underneath (instant shade), dried out rice fields, motos, students on bikes. Road side stops with cold drinks and Pepsi bottles full of gasoline, should your moto run out.  We even saw some water buffalo ducking in the various muddy ponds and streams. (more…)

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Cambodia pt 1.

When we finally hopped on a bus to cross the border, we were expecting lots of scamming and hassle. But since we had our e-visas in hand, we had already paid… The only thing we had to pay was for a medical “check-up” where we paid an official 30 baht to point a little temperature reader at our heads and get a form saying we weren’t sick. After that, besides the monopoly-style prices at the border it was pretty easy. We did encounter an Indian couple who had apparently fallen prey to one of those scams we heard about in Bangkok: you buy a ticket for someone to take you all the way from Bangkok to somewhere in Cambodia, and when you arrive at the border, they have you cross through and after that they disappear, leaving you less some cash and still needing a ride. Instead of getting on another bus Cambodia’s sole beach resort, Sihanoukville, we decided to stay for a day in Koh Kong, a formerly seedy border town that is apparently trying to get some eco-tourism going since they are located near a virtually uninhabited island, several waterfalls and an endangered mangrove forest. You wouldn’t be able to tell any of that, unfortunately, from the state of the town and the fact that the information. Cambodia is most definitely one of those place where all business is tied together; you will be taken to your taxi driver’s friend’s hotel, your hotels will sell bus tickets and tours from companies they’re tied into, so you only know what is available by how many different people you talk to.
Anyways… eventually we arrive in Sihanoukville, which is right now in full boom-town mode…. Everywhere you look there is a new hotel going up, and even in our guesthouse they are adding a whole new section of rooms. Just on the street we were staying on there must have been six places under construction.IMG_0549
Once we arrived at the main tourist beach, Serendipity, I wanted to leave. Like Koh Samet, there was nothing but restaurant after restaurant down 3km of the beach, filled with bronzed Europeans shooing away souvenir toting children and land-mine wounded amputees.

(more…)

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