Tag Archives: backpacking

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)!

Hope you are all enjoying December. December for me has brought a new country and a decision to extend my stay in Asia. After much thought, I have decided that it what I want and what is right for me at this particular moment in my life. That being said, I change my mind a lot and you shouldn’t be completely surprised if I book a ticket home on Christmas Eve. Anyway, having worked as an oncology nurse for 3 years I have been well exposed to the fragility and preciousness of life. We only get one of them after all, so might as well make the most of it. And right now I feel like this is the thing in my life I need to be doing. So we will see.

I am now in Vietnam, having arrived last Wednesday from Thailand. Vietnam is amazing, but more on that later. My few last days in Thailand were filled with islands, scuba diving, food, and nights out. After my last post, I left on a 3 night scuba diving live aboard boat. It was me and 24 of my closest friends. Well kind of. Most of them I met that day, but also many of them were new friends that I had met hanging out in Khao Lak for the past week. Both students and instructors, it was such a good group of people. We left on friday night, and spent the next 3 days rising with the sun and scuba diving until our bodies were pruned. We did 3-4 dives a day, at various sites around the Similan Islands. On Sunday we did a night dive, which entails complete darkness and flashlights! Definitely makes your heart flutter, but the ocean at night is a whole different place. I saw so many cool fish and octopus and eels and snakes and turtles and coral. And I am finally officially an open water certified diver! I am hoping to get a couple more dives in on my tour of Asia, might even go back to Thailand. Anyone want to join me?? A few of my friends there were completing a 6 week ‘Dive Master’ training, which allows them to eventually become diving instructors but also certifies them to lead trips. Many of them end up working in Khao Lak for the season and then often ‘chase’ the scuba seasons around the globe. Mexico anyone?

After returning from the boat trip, I stayed one day longer in Khao Lak than originally anticipated. I just have such a hard time saying goodbye to places I love! But my friend I was meeting in Vietnam was delayed due to visa troubles so I figured why not, right! Monday night consisted of a big night out with my new scuba friends, lots of Thai beer and live music. Yes please. Also some late night pool poaching at the most luxurious hotel pool I’ve ever seen. It look like it could have maybe hosted the olympics of Ancient Greece. Tuesday and wednesday was beach time and last minute souvenir shopping before I was on my way to Ho Chi Minh City. My travels were undoubtedly filled with a little bit of chaos, because that’s just the way it goes. This time it was a matter of immigration. My flight to HCMC from Phuket included a layover in Bangkok. I ‘checked out’ of Thailand at Phuket immigration and was labeled with a ‘fly thru’ sticker upon boarding the plane. Apparently this meant I was to remain in my seat at arrival in Bangkok and wait for an escort to my next international flight. Well I must have been sleeping during that announcement because as my head was up in the clouds I followed the rest of my air asia compatriots and suddenly found myself standing at the baggage claim. As in, on the very wrong side of immigration. As in, CRAP I was in the country illegally. I literally RAN to immigration, where I tried hopelessly to explain myself before even handing over my passport. To which I was responded with “You have departure stamp!!! Why you in Thailand?!?!” Uh Oh. I was escorted to the immigration office where someone recognized my ‘fly thru’ sticker and after making copies of my entire passport decided I was okay to, re-depart. I squeezed out a few tears that may have helped as well. Anyways, in my stressful situation recovery time I was unfortunate enough to pass a McDonalds and gave in immediately. Oops. Some things are just out of my control. The rest of the travels were uneventful and I arrived safely in Vietnam.

Since arriving here, I have come down with some rare unknown strain of the Asian bird flu. Well not quite, but my face feels frequently likes its going to pop and I have never seen such a rapid production of snot in my life. Fortunately it has not been debilitating, most just a huge annoyance, but hopefully it will be on its way soon. So, after a day in Saigon I have made may way north where I am exploring the Central Highlands by motorcycling. Aside from saying it is absolutely amazing, I will wait until the completion of the trip on Tuesday to fill you in on the rest! Good luck with the Christmas shopping and hope you are all enjoying the snow. xox.

A much overdue post! I have been so busy in Thailand that any spare time I have I usually spend sleeping, which says a lot because I am still freaking exhausted! I have been in Thailand for about a week and half now. It’s going too quickly! Conor arrived last monday and we have been doing the most fantastic tour de Thailand ever. He is only here 12 days so it was tricky trying to come up with an itinerary that would hit all the good stuff but not leave us running from one place to the next. I did a lot of research pre arrival (way back when I had lots of time for reading in my little mud house with no electricity, remember that?) and I don’t mean to brag but I could potentially be a travel agent. Maybe it’s genetic and I got it from my mom. Anyway we spent our first two and half days in Bangkok hanging with the hoards of tourists that flock from all over the world to play in this country. It was interesting being in Bangkok after spending so much time in Nepal and then Sri Lanka, there are white people EVERYWHERE. And there is a lot of money and a lot modernization. It’s good and bad. Bad because it almost feels like there are more tourists than Thai people and you can’t help but feel a little guilty. You also inevitably lose the character of the country when everything is tailored to foreigners. It’s good because the masses of people speaks for the charm of the country, it is incredible and everyone wants a piece of it. I also enjoy meeting other travelers and am now being afforded many luxuries I was left wanting in Nepal and Sri Lanka. Mostly- Not being looked at and/or judged for being a woman, electricity 24 hours, english speakers, shopping. So we enjoyed our few days of sightseeing and photo snapping. I even splurged and we stayed in this posh little hotel called Shanghai Mansion in the heart of Chinatown. It was amazing, if you ever need a great a place to stay- go there. Other highlights included- river cruising, buddha and temple sightings, fish eating our feet, so much street food, roof top cocktails, a thai ska band, and a Muay Thai match.

On Wednesday we crammed into a “bus” (also known as a van, where I am from) and sucked our bellies in while balancing our massive backpacks (why would the bus have room for luggage?) for the one hour ride to Ayuthaya. Ayuthaya was the previous capitol of Thailand back in the 1300s. It was full of massive palaces and temples where the Kings and Monks ruled. A few centuries later most of the structures were destroyed by the Burmese during the war. Now all that’s left is these incredible ruins that will make your jaw drop. Despite the destruction, the buildings are beautiful and the size and detail that was created so many centuries ago is just amazing. We stayed here overnight and rented to bikes to explore the ruins. It was a quick side trip from Bangkok and gave Conor a good taste of the rich history of Thai culture. We arrived back in Bangkok on Wednesday afternoon where we had just enough time to grab a drink with some friends of mine from Nepal (an Australian couple who is traveling Thailand now as well) on the notorious Khao San Road. Then we we’re off on the overnight train to Southern Thailand! A word of advice for future rail travelers- book ahead!! We misinformed that we could get a ticket just before we got on the train, unfortunately I didn’t see the blurb in my guide book that recommended the opposite until just a few hours before the train left. We were left with the option of buying seats (for a 12 hour, 7pm-7am ride) or purchasing very overly priced beds from an incredibly savvy travel agent who tailors to people in our situation. She buys out the last car of beds just for the desperate last minute folk. Anyway, it was well worth the money. We got seats that converted into bunk beds and got to know some great Swedes who thought they could actually eat “spicy” food in Thailand. Note: Nobody can eat spicy food in Thailand without some pretty severe consequences.

When we woke up we were just a van ride away from Khao Sok National Park. We spent two nights here in a crazy little tree house bungalow in a forest full of monkeys. This was Conor’s first experience of mosquito nets, cold showers, sharing your room with insects of various sizes, and unreliable electricity. I just felt like I was back at Auma and Baba’s house! We went jungle trekking to some waterfalls after arriving and enjoyed a very hot but fun hike. We even saw a snake eat a frog! So cool. The next day we took a tour to a nearby lake that is about the most massive body of water ever. It was created by a dam about 30 years ago and there are whole villages underwater. It is surrounded by limestone cliffs and more jungle. We went on a boat to a little floating village, where we explored via ancient and unsteady kayak the nearby coves. For lunch we were served very fresh fish and then we were off on another jungle trek. This time to a cave that was amazing! The cave was used as a communist hideout a few decades ago and is a massive network of pools and passages. It was full of bats and stalactites. It was a really cool experience.

The next day, we took another VAN (AHH) to the coast and hopped a ferry to the island of Koh Lanta. Speaking of another van, I think I could author an entire blog on public transport in Asia. Holy crap. Koh Lanta is labeled a beach bum paradise and that it is. We decided it would be a good place to start our time in the islands and it was a good call. This place is so chill and really lives up to its description. We are staying in a little multi colored bungalow with hello kitty sheets and silk-ish blankets. It’s got a lot of character. Anyway its $20 a night and a few steps from the beach. Yes please. Yesterday we went elephant trekking, weird but fun, and explored the island. Today we went on a snorkeling tour of four nearby islands. It was so beautiful and we saw lots of really cool fish. We opted for the cheap boat (the other options being- a large tour boat, or a an expensive ‘first class’ speed boat). Our was a long wooden row boat looking thing with a car engine on the back. I learned the hard way that it is not a good idea to drink a lot of gin the night before boarding one of these boats. Oh man, I thought was going to have to jump ship. I lived however, but not before forgetting my entire wallet (passport and everything. yikes.) on the boat and Conor having a lobster back (it was bound to happen sooner or later). We will stay here another day than go to Ko Phi Phi before returning to Bangkok for Conor’s flight home. This has been his first trip abroad and I’m hoping he’s caught the bug. So far so good! It’s been lots of fun. Okay skeeters are eating me so I gotta run, big hugs to all! xo

The adventure begins!!
The adventure begins!!

Conor ascending the steep steps at Wat Arun

A big gold Buddha at Wat Pho!
A big gold Buddha at Wat Pho!
Cocktails and the Bangkok skyline
Cocktails and the Bangkok skyline
Ringside seats at a Muay Thai match
Ringside seats at a Muay Thai match
The Muay Thai Champion!!
The Muay Thai Champion!!
A Thai night out, cheap beers and dancing to Ska music!
A Thai night out, cheap beers and dancing to Ska music!

 

Noodles at a floating restaurant in Ayuthaya
Noodles at a floating restaurant in Ayuthaya
Exploring by bike
Exploring by bike
An amazing sunset at the temple ruins of Ayuthaya
An amazing sunset at the temple ruins of Ayuthaya
Conor all tucked in for the night on our overnight train to the south
Conor all tucked in for the night on our overnight train to the south
A sleepy Conor ready for a day of exploring, from our little jungle hut!
A sleepy Conor ready for a day of exploring, from our little jungle hut!
Caving Khao Sok National Park
Caving Khao Sok National Park
I am now a licensed elephant driver. Lucky Conor, my first ever passenger!
I am now a licensed elephant driver. Lucky Conor, my first ever passenger!
A little bit of heaven at our beach side accommodation in Koh Lanta!
A little bit of heaven at our beach side accommodation in Koh Lanta!
Snorkeling in the Andaman Sea!
Snorkeling in the Andaman Sea!
Feeding tropical fruits to tropical fish!
Feeding tropical fruits to tropical fish!