Saturday, October 31, 2009

C:"What are we eating?" R: "I don't know, it's filled with something..."

We left Cat Ba Island on Thursday for Vinh, which is supposedly a place to arrange a quicker bus ride to the Lao border than via Hanoi. And we'd both had about enough fun there the first time. After another rough ride on the night bus, we made it to Vinh at around 2:30am. The bus driver stopped at the far edge of town and booted us off rather unceremoniously after checking our tickets to make sure he was ejecting the right two foreigners. After watching him bless his bus, walking around it with incense sticks, we took off on foot in the direction he pointed when we asked where the bus station in Vinh is. We met probably the only honest motorcycle taxi rider in the entire nation, who stopped, asked where we were going, and motioned for us to put our bags in front of him and for us to both hop on behind. Two backpacks, two daypacks, and two good-sized westerners on the back of a 125cc scooter! He delivered us safely to the bus station at a very fair price, and I could only imagine what he told the other taxi drivers he spoke with when he dropped us off, but I heard a whole lot of laughter. We spent the rest of the morning sitting on the stoop under the lights at the bus station like real homeless people, er, adventurers... AND I peed in the parking lot like a real We got a hotel around 7 after the town woke up and got a nap and shower and felt much better. We were apparently the ONLY westerners in this city of over 200,000 people, because people hung out of bus windows to stare as they passed us on the street, and we felt like celebrities everywhere we went. For a day we really weren't looking forward to, it was actually a lot of fun.
That evening we headed back to the bus station and arranged transportation through Mr Hai, who has a bus that runs periodically to Phonsavan, Laos. Saturday morning we boarded along with a handful of other people and took off for what turned out to be an eventful trip. First, we made a detour to a small town to pick up mattresses, bags of rice, and metal pots (which all got loaded onto the roof), then we picked up more passengers along the way. Stopping for lunch in an unknown small town, we noticed that there was brake fluid all over the front wheel. The bus crew worked on it while we ate lunch (we really have no idea what it was, maybe eel? Colin hopes the ribs were pork...all I can say is, whatever it was, the meat and the green things were tasty). Repairs made, the crew purchased two large jugs of brake fluid and we continued to the border. The ride was beautiful, through mountains, traditional villages with bamboo and stilt homes; I'm glad we didn't fly instead as many people do. We got to the border and were a bit nervous, not knowing the languages or the process. This border crossing isn't commonly used by westerners, and we were a novelty on both sides. Exiting Vietnam was uneventful, we changed currency and the guards made a quick glance through our bags (the one man took my sun hat out of the bag and put it on my head- they are serious about skin safety here). It was less formal on the Laos side, after crossing the bridge, we had to climb a steep, muddy hill, passing clucking chickens, to the border station. The officers took our passports and accompanying photos for our visas on arrival and got out the manual on how to issue the appropriate visa to Americans. After sweating for twenty minutes, our passports were stamped and visas were issued, and we were on our way once again. The celebration was short-lived, since we stopped about 10km inside the Laos border with a flat tire on the bus. Fortunately, we were in one of the few towns along the way, and after an hour and a half, the tube was patched, and we were once again, on our way. We finally arrived in Phonsavan at about 9pm (approximately 375km in 15 hours). We were glad to have brought crackers, fruit, and water with us on the bus. Even though the trip was long, we managed to keep our senses of humor about the situation and enjoyed the journey a lot.
Phonsavan, and Laos in general, is literally a breath of fresh air compared to Vietnam. It is blissfully quiet, the air is clear, noone hassles the few tourists here, and of course, the food is good. Tomorrow we are going to the Plain of Jars and then on to Louang Prabang in a couple of days.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Cat Ba Island

The posts have been lacking, because we've been slacking on Cat Ba Island for the past 6 days. It's the only inhabited island in Halong Bay, with around 7,000 residents (same as all of Grant County!). We felt the need for a break after Hanoi and before we make the journey across the Laos border, so we extended our stay here for a few extra days. Unlike the hotels in all the other cities we've stayed, internet access is not available, so we are currently sitting in a cafe waiting for our ride back to the ferry dock.

The vistas from the island and on the bay are stunning! We took a bunch of photos and hope to post them sometime on smugmug, but we keep getting farther and farther behind. Google Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island for an idea why we stayed longer here than anywhere else thus far. We took an overnight boat trip into the bay on about a 50 foot boat with three other tourists, a honeymooning American couple from Lake Tahoe, and a 20-year old girl from New Zealand. We spent the days kayaking, swimming, and eating, and to sleep, we dragged our mattress onto the roof of the cabin and slept under the stars (serenaded by the dogs who guard each of the fish farms and the cellphones of our boat captain and cook- how can you get a cellular signal in the middle of Lanha Bay but not in Grant County?!?!?) Aside from this, we've spent our time reading on the beach, swimming, and eating lots of good seafood.

On to our first land border crossing into Laos now. Wish us luck!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Things seen carried on a xe

The primary mode of transport in the cities of Vietnam is the xe, or 125-150cc motorbike (rather small). They're used to carry everything, apparently. We've seen on one xe:

a refrigerator

9 kegs of beer

5 people

a very large flat-screen television (twice)

12ft pieces of PVC pipe

bales of straw

a wire cage full to the top of puppies (really didn't want to know their destiny)

two adults, the driver balancing a large tray of donuts

baskets and flats of hundreds of eggs

a double mattress

a large, square mirror between the driver and passenger

various windows and doors

a glass cabinet

a mountain of fishtraps

a driver, two big westerners, and all their luggage (that would be us)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Is that a sword in your pocket, or are you just happy to kill me?

We are in Hanoi. Times have obviously changed, for yes, there is in fact, a Hilton Hotel (quite swanky too). This is the most schizophrenic city I have even seen; more so than even Saigon. People everywhere try to creatively separate you from your money, which leaves a rather unpleasant taste on the palate. Many taxi drivers cannot be trusted to take you where you need to go, fruit vendors ensnare you in their baskets, try to get you to photograph your partner for a souvenir, buy overpriced bananas, and refuse to give you change, youths sell counterfeit books, shine shoes (uh, everyone wears sandals?!?!), claim to be students collecting money for the Red Cross and then yell at you when you don't donate 20 USD, while others just hold out their hats and beg. Yet, it is a wonderful city as well; much of the cityscape is gorgeous. The traditional Asian and French architecture combine beautifully with the lakes and occasional gardens. The old city retains much of its original character: each street was named for the craft or product sold, and many of them continue the same traditions. We found the streets of blacksmiths, silk, shoes, metalwork, herbs, red candles, and funerary supplies (joss paper and incense), among other things. We also visited the restored home of a wealthy merchant, where I spoke with a guide who gave me some insight into important items and symbols in Vietnamese homes. Of all things, the colorful, pieced silk placemats and tablerunners are quite significant in that the fabrics used include four symbols: the Chinese characters for happiness and longevity, bamboo for the father, and flowers for the mother. The guide explained to me that when people sit at the table, the mats are to remind them of the happy, strong family in the home. I've really enjoyed the cultural lessons I have received thus far. I just hope the touts and scam artists don't ruin the reputation for tourists in the future.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


After spending Friday morning in Hoi An, we took the bus to Hue. We rode through Danang, where we saw a couple of very large ships washed up on the beach, apparently the result of Typhoon Ketsana. The water level of the rivers is still quite high in this whole region. We made it to Hue, and to another very nice, quiet, and spotlessly clean hotel, the Amigo.

Saturday we went walking through the Citadel to the Imperial Enclosure, which was the monarchs' residence. We stopped along the way to see the Military Museum, which was closed, as looked at the tanks used by the US and their "puppet" forces. While we were there, we met some medical students, Ty and Ngan, from the local university and spoke with them for quite awhile. They invited us to meet them later for coffee , which we did (more on this in a minute). The Imperial Enclosure is basically a walled city within the Citadel walls that was built in the early 19th century. There were originally 148 buildings, and only about 20 of them survived the French and the American wars. What remains is impressive (Colin thinks being king wouldn't be too bad), and restoration/rebuilding is ongoing. The grounds with all the gardens and pools must have been breathtaking in their heyday; even now, they're beautiful. We also went to two pagodas, Bao Quoc and Dieu De, and to the central market (overwhelming, we didn't stay long).

Last evening we met Ngan and Ty and several of their friends, who took us to experience the local student hangouts, first a street cafe and then to a coffee shop on the Perfume River. We got to try che, or "sweet soup," which is a concoction of red beans, rice, sweet potato, banana, condensed milk, and what must be some kind of tapioca over ice. It sounds awful and looks as weird as it sounds, but it actually tasted GOOD! Colin and I sat around a table under an awning off the street at talked with these very genuine people, comparing Vietnamese and American life for about two and a half hours. They wanted to know about our holidays and asked us to sing, so we sang "God rest ye, merry gentlemen," and they sang a national song they have to sing every Monday at school. We talked about family life, school, the weather and seasons, our jobs, what US cities are like, and had an absolutely wonderful time. Thank you to Ty, Linh, Ngan, Thom, and Vanahn (from left to right in the photo), for making us feel so welcome!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Hoi An

Hoi An is an ancient coastal city that's been an international trading center for centuries. The architecture is a mix of Vietnamese, Japanese, and Chinese influences with a little European thrown in for good measure. It's a Unesco World Heritage Site and much preservation has been done to the buildings in the old town. It is truly beautiful. To make it more amazing, the town was under 6 feet of water two weeks ago from Typhoon Ketsana, and there's no sign it even happened! Hoi An is known for its tailors, it seems like every other storefront is a tailor shop offering customized suits, dresses, and even shoes. Give 'em a picture, you can have one like it in your size tomorrow! They also make Chinese silk lanterns several places here, and many businesses hang them in their storefronts along the water. At night, it makes for a spectacular sight.
Hoi An is also known throughtout Vietnam for some of its culinary specialties, including Cau Lao, fried wontons (not anything like you'd find at home), and wonderfully fresh seafood. I am officially addicted to squid, having had it for both lunch and dinner on Tuesday. Everything we have eaten here, from restaurants and street vendors, has been delicious, and I could happily stay here just to eat. And to drink- many small restaurants that cater to the locals have bia hoi (fresh beer) on the menu. It's brewed daily, is extremely light in flavor and alcohol...and is roughly 17 cents per 12 oz mug. It's easy to have several with dinner, especially considering the heat and humidity.
Fortunately, our hotel, the Phuoc An, has a pool. We have taken to returning to the hotel in the late afternoon for a soak in the pool before cleaning up for dinner. This is a lovely hotel: helpful and friendly staff, great breakfast including cooked to order omelets and banana pancakes (different from Colin's but good nonetheless), laundry for 50 cents/kilogram, and comfy, air conditioned rooms all for the low low price of.... 25 bucks a night. They also lend bicycles to their guests, and even though Colin said he'd never ride AND enjoy riding a bicycle, he did...TWICE. One day, we rode to the local beach, rented beach chairs, and had a great surfside lunch of squid and spring rolls. The waves were huge and rough, but the water was warm. On the return ride, Colin had a flat tire and pulled over to a scooter repair stand for air. The elderly man didn't speak any English, but he did speak French fluently (I don't), but we were able to get the tire fixed and I got to practice my French a little.
Today we took a trip to My Son, another holy place of the Cham. Much of it was destroyed during the American War, which is how the Vietnamese refer to the Vietnam War. There are brick towers that were built between the 7th and 14th century. It's amazing to me that any brick structure made without using any kind of mortar still exists. They were monuments to the Cham deities and obviously meant to stand the test of time. For part of the return trip, we traveled by boat past rice paddies and small villages. It was a great day!
Tomorrow we leave for Hue. We have posted photos of Nha Trang on the smugmug site and will upload Hoi An when we get a chance.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Last Day in Nha Trang and the Night Bus to Hoi An

So our last day in Nha Trang, we took off on foot (all the locals look at us like we're nuts for walking everywhere) for the Cham Towers of Po Nagar, which are about 2 miles outside of town. These terra cotta brick towers are a religious site of the Cham people which were built around the 10th century and are still used for worship today. On the way, we passed the finish of the Nha Trang half-marathon (who knew?) and walked through the residential and commercial districts of town, which were interesting to see just because of the dramatic range from scrap corrugated shacks to luxury homes. That's what we've seen pretty much everywhere so far, though. Anyway, after a slow, hot walk, we arrived at the towers, paid our admission fees, and walked up the steps to the site. At the entrance to the first tower was a sign with the dresscode for entry stating, no short pants. Now, Colin and I both know shorts are inappropriate temple wear, and yet, neither of us managed to think about it before we left the hotel wearing them. You will all be happy to know that we were respectful of the cultural norms (unlike a lot of other tourists) and limited our visit to the outsides of the towers. It is a beautiful and really peaceful place.
That evening, we took the night bus to Hoi An. The night bus is a sleeper bus with verrryyy short bunks up and down. You get in your seat, stow your shoes in a cubby under your head, and try to relax. It was an eleven-hour bus ride over a variety of road surfaces ranging from rough to "oh my GOD are we crossing the country via goat path or WHAT?!?!?!?" Needless to say, we've both had sounder nights of sleep, but we got to Hoi An safely, and what a lovely place it is!
We are adding more photos to as we can, but the internet situation is less than reliable, and uploads creep at a snail's pace. Keep checking for new photos.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Next stop: Nha Trang

So after four days in Saigon, we took the bus north to Nha Trang,
which is a coastal resort about 450km from Saigon. The trip took ten
hours and was absolutely beautiful. Saigon sprawls for what seems
like forever, and the road system is pallid compared to our highways.
Sharing a two-lane road with oxcarts, scooters, bicycles, and semi
rigs is an interesting experience. We hugged the coast for miles,
riding past mountains and rice paddies, and yes, the women do wear
conical hats while working in the fields! It looks like an
exceedingly tough way of life to me. Nha Trang, though, is a great
place. Yesterday, we spent the morning lounging on chaises on the
beach, and in the afternoon walked the two miles to the National
Oceanographic Museum in the nice, warm rain. It's a pretty
interesting place because they have all sorts of live specimens of
indigenous species AND something like 80,000 aquatic "pickled punks" lined up on shelves for research. It would be a great movie set.
They also had a complete humpback whale skeleton that was found when digging drainage ditch several miles inland and a whole bunch of super sad taxidermized critters (they really do need to be kept in a climate controlled environment).
Today we took a boat trip to several of the islands off the
coast here. We got to do some snorkelling, sat on another beach, had
a great lunch on the boat, and we were entertained by our guides, the
musicians. The boat crew got out their instruments and dragged
members of the tour onto the tabletops to sing with them; I
participated as best I could, but I don't know the words to "Yellow
Submarine." Colin actually got up on the table with them and ....
danced. It really was a great time, and to top it off, we met some
funloving Aussie tourists who have offered their hospitality to us if
we get to their homeland. More to come!

Days 3 and 4 in HCMC

Tuesday morning we went to Ben Thanh market to try to find some pants for Rebekah as she only has two pairs of pants for the next six months. This was a short trip, however, as the sellers in this market are very high pressure. Both Re and I ended up fleeing for the exit within 10 minutes. We then walked the 2+ miles back to the lunch lady's pho stand. We were a little nervous when we saw that the soup
of the day included some odd sausage(?) and cubes of congealed pig's blood! We both decided that we aren't fans of congealed blood. While the taste isn't bad, the texture is. Other than that, the pho was delicious.
Later, we went to the History Museum. We both thoroughly enjoyed it, I especially liked the Cham relics. The Cham are an ethnic minority in Vietnam and have a unique style to their stone carvings. Re was impressed by stellae that contained both Sanskrit and Khmer writing,
apparently the subject matter concerned taxes, but it was beautifully written. We also were excited to see some portions of stonework from Angkor Wat, it made us even more excited about visiting there later this year.

Wednesday we went on a bus and boat tour to the Mekong Delta. After a two hour bus ride south to the town of My Tho, we got on a boat for a trip to some of the islands in the Mekong River. We saw the homes of some fish farmers that float in the river with their fish pens and visited an island where bee keeping is a popular vocation. We sampled
some honey tea and some banana wine and Re got to wear a boa made of a
real boa constrictor! The snake was about six feet long and looked
very stylish around Re's neck. (I promise we will upload more photos
to our Smugmug site soon). Next we took another boat to an island
where coconuts are the business. We toured a small coconut candy
manufacturer and sampled some delicious candy. Later we had lunch and
walked around a small village on that same island. Finally we took another boat back
to our bus and headed back to HCMC. It was a good day, especially
since our guide was a very fun and nice person.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Day 2 in Saigon

We woke up to a hot and steamy day on Monday. Sweating while eating breakfast is going to take some getting used to. We did a walking tour in the morning and ended up at the Lunch Lady's Pho stand! This stop was on our can't miss list and was worth the trip. There is a different soup every day and we had the bun Thai, and it was unbelievably good. From the broth to the miniature squid and fish balls, truly delicious! Even more amazing is that a bowl of this goodness is less than $1. We may go back today!
Later we went to the zoo and the botanical gardens. We had a good time but were a little sad at the conditions at the zoo. After the zoo, we toured the Reunification Palace. It is a strange slice of the sixties, the architecture and furniture is very retro. We took some pictures and will be adding them to our Smugmug page when we get a faster connection. (Michael will love them!) It was a good day all-in-all, but we are still acclimating to the heat, noise, and constant sensory input. Crossing the street in HCMC is an adventure every time!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Our first day in Saigon

We arrived in HCMC (Saigon) last night after a long, hitchless trip. After breezing through immigrations and customs, we got a taxi to the hotel. The taxi ride was quite an introduction to the cacophony of Saigon; I realized I had Colin's hand in a death grip at some point during the trip and had to let go so he could regain circulation in his fingers. There are thousands of people riding scooters in packs, buses and cars trying to make their way through the scooters, and pedestrians with tremendous faith in some higher power walking slowly out into traffic. And... it was raining. At several times, the taxi driver took us into oncoming traffic when the roads narrowed due to construction, but it was okay, everybody else was doing it too... . I believe people are supposed to drive on the right (same as in the US), but that may just be the suggested practice!
We made it safely to our hotel, which is a peaceful and cool respite from the steaminess. After a good night's sleep, Colin and I started the morning with a walk to Ben Thanh Market and learned along the way that if you stop to sit and rest, someone will convincingly suggest a riding tour of the city on one of the deathscooters. Yes, we took them up on their offer, suckers for adventure that we are. It was actually a lot of fun and not nearly so frightening as you'd think (we DID wear helmets). Saigon provides a sensory overload that I have never experienced anywhere else. The continuous noises, sights, and smells were a bit overwhelming to our tired brains midday, so we went back to the hotel for an hour nap and felt MUCH better afterward. Since there can't be a post without talking about food, we ate dinner at Banh Xeo 46A. Banh Xeo are Vietnamese crepes made with rice flour and coconut milk that are filled with shrimp, pork, onions, and mung bean sprouts. We've eaten them in the US before, and I make them at home, but these were absolutely SPECTACULAR! And, I provided great amusement for some of the other customers with my method of eating them. I'm sorry to say, I tried to eat the shrimp in their shells, and I did manage to down a few of them, but I ended up picking them out of my crepe in order to peel about half of them. The young woman and her male companion sitting across from us apparently found it funny. Always glad to be able to entertain!
We are adding our photos to as computer access allows.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Waiting to take off!

We are sitting in the Portland airport waiting to take off for
Vietnam. We have spent the week packing up the house and moving all
of our stuff into storage. We were only able to get a 750 cubic foot
storage space, and surprisingly enough, all our worldly possessions
fit into it. We are now officially homeless! What a strange and
oddly freeing feeling it is, kind of a combination of excitement and