Tag Archives: Adventures in Asia

Love in an unlikely place

I am head over heels in love with this country. I can’t seem  to understand where or why so many of my fellow backpackers formulated the negative opinions that were shared often throughout Thailand. It is certainly a country with a rough exterior, but as they say- you can’t judge a book by it’s cover, right? Likely, I think these nay sayers either didn’t spend enough time here or chose to have their entire opinion marred by one negative experience. The truth about most of Asia, is that it’s gruff and often desperate. This is especially true in a communist country, who’s history is riddled with the atrocities of war and government oppression. Unfortunately, the outcome of this is that a few unsavory and dishonest characters have made it their business to prey on naive tourists. Most of the people who had a poor taste of Vietnam, shared a similar story. You find this everywhere in Asia, but I firmly believe if you stay half awake and follow your gut when being propositioned for something that sounds too good to be true, it is unlikely you will come across any harm. Also, trust only yourself. That being said, the quality of life in Vietnam has improved significantly in the last decade and it is generally a country of happy, hard working people. In three words- I would describe the Vietnamese as friendly, enthusiastic, and curious.

My last post finished with my arrival in picturesque Hoi An, which is ironic considering I now find myself, 10 days later, on a bus back to Hoi An. Before coming full circle, I have journeyed to the very north of Vietnam- visiting snowy Sapa, capitol city Hanoi, breathtaking Halong Bay, and finally historic Hue.
After our motorcycle adventure, Alyssa and I spent 3 days getting completely sucked in to the charm of Hoi An. This is the quintessential postcard city, that has been fantastically preserved and restored from it’s glory days in the 1800s. It is a french-appearing colonial town, with brightly colored stone buildings that decorate the canals and cobblestone streets. It is the perfect place to get lost or cozy up in a cafe with a book. We spent our first day enthralled by the abundance of small shops, selling everything from jewelry, hand woven fabrics, tailor made suits, art work, house decors, and the list goes on and on. A great and unique place to start our Christmas shopping. On day 2, we rose early to join a “Heaven and Earth” bicycle tour of the Hoi An country side. Despite overcast weather, we had a blast exploring the small villages and farms that dot the land around the Thu Bon river. Before leaving the next afternoon, Alyssa and I decided to divide and conquer for the morning so we could both accomplish our desired adventures for the day. Mostly i just needed an excuse to not go on a jog with her. Anyway, I rented a bike for a dollar and made my way to the beach. This was a beautiful ride that culminated with coconut trees and white sand. I didn’t have my bathing suit, so today I was just looking not touching. On my way back to town I intentionally took a few wrong turns and landed in a busy market. Markets are always exciting to me, as they are literally alive and the energy is palpable. After no more than 5 minutes and no less than 50 “you buy something?’s later, I began being tailed by a woman who appeared to be playing cat’s cradle with a thin string wrapped around her fingers. After pausing for half a second too long, I was now at this woman’s mercy and was quickly informed that the string was in fact a very successful method of hair removal (“3 month no hair!”). Well, given that I had been shamefully examining the unattractiveness of my eyebrows that very morning, I decided it was a sign and agreed to follow her to her shop.For those of you that are aware of my previous Asian beauty salon experience, where the notorious Bangladeshi mullet first came to life, you can imagine I was a little bit nervous. Before I had the chance to run, or even exhale, my face was being chalked and the strings were being rapidly pulled and pushed across my eyebrows. It hurts about as bad as you would expect it to but was over quickly. After my ‘salon artist’ tried unsuccessfully to talk me into getting my cheek hair threaded (surprise, apparently I have cheek hair?),  she took one look at my foot and I was easily convinced that I needed to have the ‘dead skin removal’ procedure done. This procedure entailed a lot of moisturizer and a very sharp razor blade. Afterward, it was proudly proclaimed that my feet were “like baby bum!!”. Perfect. Before I could say no, my fingers and toes were being clipped and painted and my $2 threading turned into a $13 spa treatment. I’ll consider it a win. Also, I had enough will power to say NO to the offer of hair cut. That’s a lesson I only needed to learn once.
Lovely Hoi An :)
Lovely Hoi An 🙂
The colors and architecture of Hoi An
The colors and architecture of Hoi An
I am frequently mistaken for a local
I am frequently mistaken for a local
Getting my foot shaved. First time for everything!
Getting my foot shaved. First time for everything!

After a short flight to Hanoi, we enjoyed an excellent dinner at New Day restaurant before boarding the overnight train to Sapa. We were going to Sapa for the weekend, for 2 days of trekking in this mountainous region of minority villages. Unfortunately, we forgot what month it was and when we disembarked the train in our flipflops and shorts the next morning we were greeted by freezing rain. Hmm, maybe we didn’t really think this one out. The weather went from bad to worse and we spent the weekend trudging through muddy land slides and trying to defrost by small charcoal fires. At night, our lovely host family gave us several pounds of heavy blankets and it was actually the best night’s sleep I’ve had. By sunday it was snowing and I was sure I would lose at least one toe.My lips were a dark shade of purple and I was becoming convinced I would never feel warm again. Given that my only remaining options were flip flops or toms, I bought a pair of rain boots from a hotel receptionist upon our return to civilization and I am still sure that it was the best $3 I ever spent. We were grateful to board the train back to Hanoi, and I spent the night with 5 shirts, 2 pairs of pants, and 2 pairs of socks on. No exaggeration, I was that cold and was that illy prepared for cold weather. Next time I go to the north of anywhere in December, I will remember to bring a sweater. That being said, we still managed to have a lot of fun and our brief and mostly foggy glimpses of Sapa’s famous views were truly breathtaking. Sapa was definitely a mountain town that reminded me a lot of the alps. It should also be said that this was the first time Vietnam had snow since 2010. We picked a good weekend.

The foggy and unbearably cold, but still picturesque, rice terraces of Sapa
The foggy and unbearably cold, but still picturesque, rice terraces of Sapa
A Hmong woman, one of the many local women who practically dragged Alyssa and I up and down the muddy hills of Sapa. Don't worry, we then repaid them in very overpriced handicraft purchases.
A Hmong woman, one of the many local women who practically dragged Alyssa and I up and down the muddy hills of Sapa. Don’t worry, we then repaid them in very overpriced handicraft purchases.
Defrosting our toes next to our cereal bowl sized fire.
Defrosting our toes next to our cereal bowl sized fire.
The coziest blankets on the whole planet earth!
The coziest blankets on the whole planet earth!

After spending the next day in Hanoi completing our Christmas shopping, it was time for me to say goodbye to Alyssa. I am so used to traveling on my own or with ‘strangers’, so it was a welcome experience for me to travel with a good friend. I love the liberty of being on my own and having the freedom to decide what i want to do each day. But traveling with Alyssa was easy, and we made good companions. The next day I left for a 3 day boat cruise through Halong Bay. I had been here once before, in 2006, when I took a short trip to Vietnam while spending my summer volunteering in Bangkok. It is a UNESCO World Heritage sight, and the powerful splendor of the bay’s limestone cliffs convinced me to go back for more! Unfortunately, I was still in the northern part of Vietnam and it was still a lot colder than I was prepared for. At this point I had been recycling the only two long sleeved shirts I have for at least a week. Stinky. We spent the days cruising through amazing rock formations, kayaking, visiting floating fishing villages, and exploring a local island. I returned to Hanoi with one more day to soak In the sights.

Sunset in Halong Bay
Sunset in Halong Bay
Exploring Halong bay by kayak
Exploring Halong bay by kayak
Trying to keep warm in my summer clothes! Wrong season.
Trying to keep warm in my summer clothes! Wrong season.
This is the life
This is the life

Hanoi is a loud, cramped city but has such an amazing amount of character you can’t help but love it. I enjoy Hanoi a lot more than I enjoy Ho Chi Minh City. If you ask anyone in the south of Vietnam, they will warn you sternly that the northerners are not as friendly and not as kind as them. While I do think the Southerners have a unique charm and generosity, I found no fault with the northern Vietnamese people. As much as I was enthralled with the winding streets of Hanoi’s old city, I decided it was only just to explore the other areas as well. But the old city still remains my favorite, I could spend days sitting in the little plastic chairs on the side walk, drinking Bia Hoi (25 cent draft beer, that must be imbibed the day it is brewed, as it has no preservatives) and people watching. So, I went and saw the legendary lake who’s famous turtle is very much still alive and is said to be guarding the country’s most important sword. I also stopped by to say hello to Ho Chi Minh, but his grave site is only open for 3 hours a day so I just waved from outside the gates. Soon, it was time for me to board another train.

The chaotic streets of Hanoi!
The chaotic streets of Hanoi!
Enjoying Bia Hoi in the mini size chairs of Vietnam
Enjoying Bia Hoi in the mini size chairs of Vietnam
I am only (with some degree of humility) posting this picture so someone could share the laugh with me. I honestly had no idea I looked like THIS until I had someone take a photo of me, unfortunately at that point the day was over. Backpacker fashion :/
I am only (with some degree of humility) posting this picture so someone could share the laugh with me. I honestly had no idea I looked like THIS until I had someone take a photo of me, unfortunately at that point the day was over. Backpacker fashion :/

On this train I found myself waking up Hue, the imperial capitol city of Vietnam. The imperial city is a massive walled in conglomerate of ancient buildings, temples, gardens, and reception halls. For me, it was reminiscent of Mulan and I was a giddy little girl seeing my favorite Disney movie come to life. It was a fascinating place and full of incredible history. I spent the day touring the other relics of the city with 3 American girls currently serving in the Peace Corps. Remember, when I barely survived my one month stay in the little Nepali village? These brave girls have been doing that for TWO YEARS in Indonesia. They were cool chicks and I was glad to have spent the day with them. In the evening we enjoyed the free Bia Hoi offered by our hotel, the not so legally named “Google Hotel” who’s logo is plagiarized right out of the 90s. It’s a pretty eccentric place, but very enjoyable. After we felt we had sufficiently filled up on our share of free beer, we headed out for a night of backpacker fun. As the first bar closed however, I decided it was my queue to turn as I had to be up at 6am for a full day tour and we all know how unsuccessfully I function with a hangover. It turned out to be a very good cool, when I ran into some fellow revelers the next day who were still nursing the casualties their previous night’s alcohol intake well into the evening. This tour was a full day excursion up to the well known “Demilitarized Zone” or DMZ, that unfortunately was the home of a horrific amount of blood shed during the Vietnam War. This area was essentially the border line between the North and the South, the two opponents of war. There was an obscene number of casualties here and it gained a terrifying reputation among soldier. It was interesting to learn more about the war and see where a lot of the worst days were experienced. We also visited an underground village, that went up to 23 meters deep and housed an entire village of 300+ people during the war. This was their only option to escape the endless bombing that persisted over their homes. It was quite the system and was very successful, as all the villagers survived the war against unlikely odds. There were also 17 babies born underground in the tunnel network! I could not spend 5 years in a  cave.

Amazing imperial architecture from the 18th century
Amazing imperial architecture from the 18th century
Exploring the underground village outside of the DMZ! Best $3 boots I ever bought.
Exploring the underground village outside of the DMZ! Best $3 boots I ever bought.
'The rock pile', a significant battleground of e Vietnam war
‘The rock pile’, a significant battleground of e Vietnam war

And that brings us to the present day, where I am on a not so luxurious bus returning to Hoi An! I will enjoy the afternoon here before I check into my next hotel aka train carriage number 7 and wake up on the beach in Mui Ne. I will spend Christmas here, with an Australian couple I volunteered with in Nepal. Looking forward to a sunny holiday! Hope you all enjoy your families this week. I will be enjoying mine from very far away, over a hopefully reliable Face Time connection. It’s just like being there! Happy Holidays 🙂

update: blogging on the bus cost me my keyboard. My fancy little iPad bluetooth keyboard is likely for sale on the streets of Vietnam somewhere. I feel like I have lost a blogging limb. I guess I better start exercising my thumbs for touch screen typing 😦

The backroads by motorbike

I came to Vietnam with low expectations and unsure of what I would find. Through Thailand I heard people argue passionately about their love or loathing of this country. I visited Vietnam briefly 6 years ago, and although an intimidating country I did not remember having developed any seriously negative conceptions. So I arrived with an open but unsure mind, ready for more adventure!

I met my long time friend Alyssa in Ho Chi Minh after a relatively painless flight from Thailand. I say relatively painless, because I have discovered it there is a law of science that prevents me from traveling smoothly. This time my trouble came when I accidentally re-entered the country of Thailand illegally after receiving my exit stamp. It was a little bit harrowing trying to talk my way out of that one, with immigration officials who were thoroughly perplexed by my ability to have accomplished this. After a few tears (I think I made them nervous), I was allowed to once again exit the country, this time with an escort. So, Alyssa is joining me for a brief 2 week tour of Vietnam before returning to the states for Christmas. I haven’t seen Alyssa for 3 years, but we are lucky enough to share a friendship that picks up right where it left off! She was one of my closest friends in my teenage years, and there’s a lot to be said about that.

Ho Chi Minh (or Saigon, as it is still referred to by the Vietnamese) is a big, loud, busy city. It is the most modernized of the country’s cities and acts as a hub for education, business, and politics. Here, we enjoyed a self guided walking tour of the crowded, terrifying streets; a gut wrenching lesson on the Vietnam war; and our first taste of local food and booze! Walking around the city was fun and slightly hilarious. If you have not heard, there is an art to crossing the street in Vietnam and it is not for the faint hearted. Unfortunately, until you figure it out, you’re not going to make it very far. The technique is something of a cross your fingers and hope for the best, while walking steadily and confidently to the other side of the road. The very worst thing you can do is stop or change your pace. Literally, you just have to hope for the best and GO.  There is no break in the traffic and no one gives a sh*t if you’re standing at a crosswalk patiently. You just gotta go. This is usually successful because just as badly as you don’t want to get hit by a car/motorbike, they don’t want to hit you. So far so good for us newbies. After making our way across the crazy chaos of HCMC streets, we spent our afternoon at the Vietnam War museum. Though it was an incredibly biased portrayal of the events of this devastating war, it was eye opening nonetheless. Both Alyssa and I felt ashamed about how little we really knew about this travesty. Somehow it seems to always be overlooked during high school history classes. In the evening we enjoyed fresh spring rolls with some new friends from Australia, Holland, and England. The food was delicious, but a lot more daunting than some of the countries I have been in. Pig’s ear salad, anyone? We finished our day in HCMC with a few drinks on the street, before boarding a 1am bus north to Dalat. This was the first ‘bunk bed’ bus I have ever been on and it was pretty hilarious. There are literally 3 rows of bunk beds with reclining seats. Generally, they would tolerable for one night’s sleep. However, on this particular bus, sleep was hard to come by as our driver felt in neccesary to drive 1,000 miles per hour and honk his absurdly loud horn every 3 seconds. I did not exagerate any of those things. Needless to say, after arriving in Dalat at 6am we spent the next 3 hours in bed.

Dalat is known as ‘the little paris’ of Vietnam. Like much of Vietnam, it is highly influenced by french architecture and design. It is a nice town up in the hills of Central Vietnam and has a particularly unique climate. They say that Dalat typically experiences all 4 seasons in one day. I found this to be mostly accurate. Unfortunately, we only had a day in Dalat but it was a charming place and is a great base for adventure activities in the surrounding hills. On this visit, our adventure of choice was motorcycles. After advice from a friend and reading up on the famed ‘easy riders’ of Dalat, we were on a mission to find a man with a motorcycle. Well, turns out these men are everywhere in Dalat and there is no longer one established group of ‘easy riders’. Easy riders are a group of guides who specialize in taking tourists to the more untouched parts of Vietnam by way of motorcycle. In the past, this was a very well recognized ‘club’. These days there are many copy cats (the asian rule of thumb is generally- if someone else finds success, I will copy them and also find success) and it can be difficult to discern who actually knows how to guide a succesful motorcycle tour. So, with some trepidation, Alyssa and I headed out on a hunt for our easy rider. We didn’t look far (at all.) until fate intervened and we were introduced to the most perfect man. His name was Loc and his resume is as follows: he is 62 (going on 90), has 2 teeth, he smiles with his whole face, has a wicked laugh, and the most sarcastic sense of humor. He spent 7 years with the special forces of the US army during the Vietnam war, during which time he picked up a few dirty jokes and a very bad smoking habit. He has a wife whom is shaped like a square (his words) and a cat who’s name he does not know. He eats only chicken and rice, and sometimes eggs. Vegetables are the devil and as he inhales his 30th cigarette of the day he refuses to drink his soup broth because it contains MSG. This is a man who has his mind made up and his priorities straight. For Alyssa and I, it was love at first sight and we knew he’d be our guide even before he handed over his volumes of tattered, leather bound reviews authored by the satisfied tourists who had come before us.

Loc and his friend Do picked us up at 8am the next morning. I settled in to my seat- squeezed comfortably in-between Do and my plastic wrapped backpack, which found its home bungee corded to the rear of the bike. With Loc and Alyssa in the lead, we were off on our 4 day adventure of the Central Highlands! This turned out to be one of the more incredible experiences of my lifetime. If any of you (at any age) find yourselves in Vietnam, an easy rider tour is not something to be missed. I do have both Loc and Do’s contact information… if you’re ever in the area. Our 4 days were filled with backroads, beautiful scenery, every farm/factory/craft shop tour you could imagine, surprised locals, and delicious although slightly suspicious appearing food. Loc was the boss, but Do was the Vietnamese encyclopedia. I learned SO much about the country, its people, and its history. There is such a rich culture here. I have little experience with motorcycles, and spending 4 days on the back of one was about the most fun I could imagine. What a unique way to see a country! After day 1, we didn’t see another tourist and we were truly immersed in Vietnamese life. The people we met were so friendly and a bit taken aback to see 2 really white girls cruising down the street. I swear a few people went off the road trying to get a good look at Alyssa, who stuck out in stark contrast to her dark skinned, well weathered chauffeur who was at least 2 feet shorter than her. The people in this part of the country were some of the friendliest I have met; inviting us into their homes for tea, complementing our pale complexions (not something to envy), and laughing with us about who knows what. Some of my favorite stops included: a silk factory (I even ate a silk worm. ew.), a weasel poop coffee farm (you read that right), the Ho Chi Minh trail (an amazing place to step foot, given it’s history), the dirt trails surrounded by miles of rice paddies (and as a result, a limitless supply of potent rice wine), a minority village’s weekend market (here, I was made to feel like Angelina Jolie- people literally just wanted to touch me), more than one breathtaking waterfall, and the many hole in the wall food establishments with highly questionable meat dishes (it’s hilarious I started this asian adventure as a vegetarian). This would have been the ideal journey to have strapped a go pro to my head, but alas I was only armed with an iPhone (apparently knock off Nikon products purchased in Thailand work only for a few days, lesson learned.) to document this unique perspective. These are a few of our amazing moments:

With my excellent guide-chauffeur, Do!
With my excellent guide-chauffeur, Do!
A dusty day on the road
A dusty day on the road
Loc, teaching us about the craft of Vietnamese coffee!
Loc, teaching us about the craft of Vietnamese coffee!

 

Alyssa and I, sharing the same affinity for cleanliness, killing two birds with one stone.. who doesn't love a waterfall shower??
Alyssa and I, sharing the same affinity for cleanliness, killing two birds with one stone.. who doesn’t love a waterfall shower??
The amazing silk factory! These women have incredible patience and skill.
The amazing silk factory! These women have incredible patience and skill.

 

A quick rest at one of the many roadside hammock stops
A quick rest at one of the many roadside hammock stops
Alyssa and Loc, at the historic Ho Chi Minh Trail!
Alyssa and Loc, at the historic Ho Chi Minh Trail!
A special forces vet, telling war stories in front of a barely remaining  american bunker.
A special forces vet, telling war stories in front of a barely remaining american bunker.
A hot afternoon swim in our own private lagoon!
A hot afternoon swim in our own private lagoon!
So many showers this week!
So many showers this week!
Sunset over rice paddies
Sunset over rice paddies
School boys biking home
School boys biking home
I'm a natural!
I’m a natural!
Breathtaking backroads
Breathtaking backroads
Late night lessons in Vietnamese!
Late night lessons in Vietnamese!
Washing down another dodgy dinner with some potent happy water!
Washing down another dodgy dinner with some potent happy water!
Riding off into the sunset on another perfect day in Vietnam :)
Riding off into the sunset on another perfect day in Vietnam 🙂

We completed our journey in the horribly hedonistic beach resort town of Nha Trang. Upon arriving we were immediately relieved to have bus tickets arranged to leave just a few hours later.  We spent our short time here with our toes in the sand, getting cheap back rubs and succumbing to the persistent hawkers selling handmade jewelry. The more obnoxious these vendors are, the more you are generally willing to pay them to go away. A sales technique they have perfected. We boarded the bus and made a significantly more comfortable overnight trip to Hoi An, about 10 hours north. This driver must have had a screw loose or something, because he actually drove under the speed limit and neglected to use his horn. I was confused.

Well, for now I will stop here and share more on our northern adventures later. Hope you all have survived your Christmas shopping. It’s been a little bit more fun picking out presents on the streets of Vietnam than my usual last minute battle at the mall. I will say that there is no lack of Christmas trees in Vietnam. Plastic of course, but beautiful nonetheless! Unfortunately (but understandably), the Vietnamese have not adopted the holiday cheer that is felt so warmly in the States at this time of year. I do miss it and might actually be forced to download a Mariah Carey Christmas album just to fill this holiday void. Ho Ho Ho! (Chi Minh)!