Saturday, February 28, 2009

Crisis Continued

Well, actually it is a new crisis (I finally got cash). Stomach sickness! It’s so ironic that I traveled Vietnam for 6 weeks, eating all the street food and never got the tiniest bit sick. On the first day in Laos, having eaten in restaurants frequented by foreigners (so I could use my credit card), I pick up a nasty stomach bug! Since it was my only day to see Vientiane (I had occupied myself yesterday with trying to get cash and hadn’t seen much), I forced myself to see a couple sights despite feeing weak and lethargic.

Vientiane is quite different than the other capitols of Southeast Asia. The traffic is light, and cars stop for you to cross the road. There isn’t much trash lying about. In some parts of town, the foreigners outnumber the locals. And even though when walking the tuk-tuk drivers will ask you “tuk-tuk?” without fail, they smile if you say no, and let you on your way. The street and shop vendors don’t call out to you. (In Vietnam, vendors would whine “Madame, you buy something from me?!”) I must have said “No, thank you” thousands of times during my trip.

If I can survive the heat, the jungle trek to the wild elephant tower should be fun. Somehow I managed to lose my Jungle Juice - 100% DEET, my hat and my headlamp during my time in Sapa, all critical for trekking here. I will do a full report when I get back.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Lao or Laos?

On Friday, February 27, I took a short hop flight from Hanoi to Vientiane, the capitol of Laos. I can’t say I was sad to say goodbye to Vietnam, although I was growing accustomed to all the annoyances I have detailed in this blog. I had talked to many people about Laos, and spent the 2 previously days anxiously devouring my Lonely Planet (which had been neglected thus far), and so I was somewhat prepared for the “laid back” nature of this sleepy little country. Actually, it’s not that small – from the map it looks about the same size as Vietnam. But get this: while Vietnam has 83 million inhabitants, Laos has only 6 million. The difference in population is apparent in the capitol, where the sidewalks are empty, traffic is normal, and people are smiling. The ubiquitous horn sounds of Vietnam are a faint memory.

Vientiane is on the banks of the Mekong River, somewhat in the middle of Southeast Asia. While I spent the last month of Vietnam’s “winter” in the cooler center and north, the rest of Southeast Asia was heating up as the dry season intensified. March and April are the hottest months before the monsoons hit, and Vientiane is already a blast furnace. I will go trekking for a couple days in hopes of seeing wild elephants, but after that I am taking a bus straight to Luang Probang in the hope of finding cooler weather.

Besides the heat, I am in a bit of a crisis cash-wise. The only ATMs in Vientiane that work with international cards, were down all day on my first day in the country, which meant no money. Other than in Burma (which has no ATMs available to foreigners), in all my travels I have relied on ATMs to get local currency. Even if I had started out with a big wad of US dollars, after the last 3 months, they would have been gone. Luckily, I had 300 Thai bhat (about $9) leftover from Thailand, which got me a taxi from the airport and lunch. Thai currency works in Laos, as does the US dollar and the Lao kip. And also, luckily, many places take credit cards (unlike Burma), so I was able to eat in nicer places. Nonethless, it feels horrible and insecure to have my hands tied by being cashless and alone (no friends in Laos).

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Friends in High Places

On Saturday, February 14, I took an overnight train to Sapa (elevation 4,500 feet), a small mountain town in Northwest Vietnam, which is popular with tourists (so I wasn't expecting much). I had intended to stay 1 week, which included time going my car to surrounding, less-visited towns. Most people only stay 2-3 days, stepping off the train to have a quick look around, then off again, the box being ticked. I ended up staying more than 10 days I was so enchanted. While I spent 4 days with a guide and a car, going by myself to see the sites of Dien Bien Phu, Son La and Muong Lay, this time was not a highlight. The remaining days I spent exploring the local villages around Sap, home to Tay, Black Hmong, Flower Hmong, and Red Dao minorities.

My guide for the days around Sapa was Lang Giang, a Black Hmong girl I met in the market when I stopped at her family’s handicraft stall. Noticing that she spoke very good English (the Hmong have less of an accent than the Vietnamese), we started talking and I found that she works as a freelance guide for many tour companies in town (many Black Hmong girls do this). For some reason, Lang befriended me straightaway, taking me to her humble apartment for dinner on my first night in town. Through Lang, I came to know a lot about Black Hmong people, and the plight of minorities in general among the Vietnamese. We went on a couple easy treks to villages near Sapa, staying at “homestays”, which are local family homes, slightly modified to accommodate tourists (some with up to 40 mattresses laid out in sleeping lofts). However, the largest crowd we ever had was 7 other tourists at one.

Lang also invited me to visit her in-laws in Pho Lu, south of Lao Cai, and I spent one night with them, observing much with little interaction since no one spoke English. I was treated so graciously, it was embarrassing. I was struck again and again by how people with the least to give are the most willing to do so.

While I paid Lang for being my guide (she left it to me to determine how much, if any I would pay her), her time with me went beyond being simply a guide. In all, I felt a new immediate friend in this girl who could not have come from a more different place. I stayed in Sapa longer because I wanted to develop that friendship and think of ways to help her get an independent guiding business started. Lang is only 20, but is very responsible and determined. She never went to school. Until tourists starting coming and paying trekking permit fees, minority villages didn’t have schools. She taught herself to read and write Hmong and Vietnamese, and to speak English. She is working on learning to read and write English.

The Vietnamese-owned tour companies that hire local Black Hmong girls to take tourists on treks (since they know the trails better than anyone), pay the girls poorly, sometimes as little as $4 a day, making a healthy profit on the packages bought by tourists. These girls teach themselves to speak English from talking with tourists (some have Australian accents, which is funny), but are otherwise uneducated and unable to start something themselves. During my time there, I was humbled and reminded of how lucky I am to have been born in the U.S., to have the opportunity just to go to school! Traveling usually brings that message home, but staying with these families, using the facilities they use, cleaning as they do (cold water and a bucket, squat toilet, etc), brings a whole new perspective.

Photo: me and Lang saying goodbye at the train station in Lao Cai

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Still in the Mountains

While originally I had planned to head back to Hanoi tomorrow night, I decided to extend my stay in the northwest of Vietnam for another few days. I have a lot to write about, so please check back on Thursday!

Sunday, February 15, 2009


Hey everyone, I am in Sa Pa, and will be touring the Northwest of Vietnam for a week so I may not be posting until I get back. Stay tuned!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Black Friday

Friday, February 13, will go down in my personal history as The Day of the Abusive Frenchman and the Whinging Pom. I had booked a tour out to the Perfume Pagoda (ironically named, but more on that later), a tour being the most cost effective way to see sights far from the city center. Vietnam is fairly organized this way, and it is possible to go almost everywhere as part of a mini-group as a cost effective alternative to a taxi or local bus. Sometimes, a guide is included. This is the way I went to the My Son Cham towers and the DMZ.

From the moment I boarded the mini-bus for Perfume Pagoda, 2 men in back were complaining (this must have been going on from the time they got on the bus). The pom (Englishman) at one point loudly proclaimed England’s superiority to Vietnam, citing the number of colonies it had achieved by the 20th century. At another point, the Frenchman said “This is all shit!” as only a Frenchman can. They both verbally abused our guide mercilessly, and made the rest of us miserable, oblivious to the effect of their sourness of the others in the group (which included 4 nice Vietnamese people). I tried to drown out the complaints by cranking my iPod, or just walking away if I could. I just kept thinking about how these 2 give all foreigners a bad name and their ugliness was making me physically ill.

Ah, so onto the Perfume Pagoda, the most sacred of all pagodas in Vietnam. It is quite a pilgrimage to get there, as the trail up to the summit of the limestone mountain, where the pagoda is located, is only accessible by boat. Thousands of rowboats (manned mainly by women) ply the waters to take the Vietnamese pilgrims (and very few foreigners). After a peaceful hour on the river, we arrived at the chaos: shops selling all manner of goods for altar offerings, cavernous restaurants, street vendors, and thousands and thousands of people. Working our way through this, I saw various whole roasted animals strung up in front of restaurants, and I am sure a few of them were dogs (nausea again, and a desire to run all the way back to California). (Whenever I see a dog here in Northern Vietnam, I can't help wondering when it will become someone's meal. The guide for Ha Long Bay said that families have no hesitation to kill the family pet if someone has a hankering for dog meat).

The whole place, including the floor the cave (where the pagoda is located), was littered with orange peels, cigarette butts, plastic bottles, and other debris. I just don’t get it. Would Catholics do the same in the Vatican? Or is the culture so completely different as to rubbish, that my California brain can’t comprehend? Unfortunately, the river was just as bad, as people use it as a trash dump (the norm here in Asia).

Thursday, February 12, 2009

DIY- Doing it Yourself

I have another confession. I checked myself into the Metropole Hotel, built by the French in 1901 and refurbished by Sofitel into the nicest hotel in Hanoi. It is reminiscent of The Raffles in Singapore or The Strand in Rangoon. Besides providing some pampering after two months in Southeast Asia, it is giving me an interesting opportunity to observe the other side of travel in Vietnam. Sitting in the lobby, I watch well-heeled couples with professional guides glide through the polished lobby, free from the concerns that have plagued me since arriving in Saigon. I am taking advantage of all the amenities before I head to the mountains of the north and into Laos immediately afterwards.

Today I followed the crowds to the mausoleum of Ho Chih Minh. Following in the footsteps of other communist leaders, Uncle Ho was embalmed (against his wishes), and now serves as the primary attraction for legions of loyal Vietnamese locals, tourists and school children visiting the capitol. There is something decidedly creepy about filing through a dark room to view a person dead for 40 years. Thankfully, the eyes were closed – I guess I imagined something more like the wax museum (this was my first dead communist leader).

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Adrift in Ha Long Bay

Early Sunday I set off on an organized tour of Ha Long Bay, the #1 tourist destination in Vietnam. It is a World Heritage Site and in competition to be one of the new 7 Wonders of the World. Apparently, the summer months draw hordes of tourists, including a fair number who come by boat from China, which is very close to Ha Long. At this time of year, I ran the risk of heavy mists and rain (as my guidebook and friends in Hanoi warned me). But as you can see from the photos, we had fine sunny skies as we floated among the limestone crags of the bay.

By comparison with other tours, our group was small at 13. Two Irish girls, one Scot, 2 Aussies, 2 Germans, 2 Vietnamese, 2 Chinese and one other American; a real mix! We did some hiking, swimming, and just generally enjoyed the view and each other’s company.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Foodie Paradise

Hanoi is perhaps the best of the country for street eats (my name for street kitchens and street food vendors). I have found throughout Vietnam that street eats are the best, much better than restaurants, but in Hanoi there so many more from which to choose. Each specializes in one thing, and does it very well. Street kitchens are narrow storefronts that open to the street, with the cook operating in the doorway, and tiny plastic tables and stools on the sidewalk. Street vendors carry a bamboo pole, weighted with a cooking pot and food on one end, and tiny plastic stools and dishes weighted on the other end. In a museum, I saw a 100+ year old photo of street vendors, and the set up was the same back then! They set up on the sidewalk in busy areas, and you just pull up a stool and eat quickly. The other option (besides a Western style restaurant) is a place that sells so-called “people’s meals”, which I consider the dirty little secret of Vietnamese cuisine. There is usually a case out front with dishes of prepared food, and you just walk up and point at what you want. They serve it with rice, and sometimes a watery soup. Every people’s meal I have had has been quite bland (as was the home-cooked meal I had), and I wonder if that is the true nature of “real” Vietnamese food.

While this is a great place for the stomach, not so much for the lungs. Did I mention that everyone smokes here? The men anyway. In restaurants, on the train, just everywhere, blowing it in my face, quite oblivious to a Californian’s sensitive nose. Interestingly, most of the foreigners I see are smoking too. Ugh. And this on top of all of the vehicle air pollution!

Friday, February 6, 2009

The DMZ and Me

On Thursday, I took a bus tour out to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), north of Hue. The DMZ is a 10 kilometer wide strip of land along the 17th parallel that divided the north and south of Vietnam according to the 1954 Geneva Accords. The agreement was that there was no bombing in the strip itself, but on either side there was a lot of destruction and the area still has unexploded ordnance littering the countryside. Now, the 10k strip is all rice paddies, and the military bases that had been set up on the south side by the U.S. are all gone, so one can only imagine how the area might have looked during the war. North of the DMZ I visited some tunnels dug by North Vietnamese villagers to escape the bombing. Over 400 people lived for 5 years in the tunnels; I couldn’t bear to be in them more than 5 minutes. While I was waiting outside for the others, I noticed some decent looking waves coming in at Cua Tung (although the water looks a bit murky!)

The overnight train to Hanoi was a mistake. It was all too similar to the overnight train from Rangoon to Mandalay back in 2006 (as my father, aunt and sister will recall). I shared the cabin with a Czech couple that did not speak English, but had their dinner of fish and raw garlic in the cabin, the smell of which stayed with us all night. We bumped along for 14 hours, and I was jarred awake as often as I fell asleep. I found out later that I had been mistakenly booked on the local “market” train instead of the express Hue-Hanoi line (which apparently is quite deluxe).

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Hooray for Hue!

Even though Hue (pronounced hoo-eh) is a big city, it has a decidedly different feel from the others that I have visited so far. There are traffic lights, and people pay attention to them! On the whole it seems to be less dense, and navigating my bicycle among the motorbikes was more like riding in a peloton (the name for a group of cyclists riding together), since people were generally going in the direction of traffic at a moderate speed and did not display the erratic behavior so typical of the other places. All of this leads to less sounding of the horns, for which my ears and brain are very grateful.

Taking to the streets in the morning to explore the Imperial City, I was pleasantly surprised by such calm, and the vague, but consistent smell of incense from family altars. The Imperial City was built starting in 1803 by the Nguyen dynasty, with the help of the French, and you can see some of the influence in the outer walls, and some of the interior palaces. Even though the French officially occupied Vietnam starting in 1883, the emperors continued to occupy the Imperial City and its palaces until Bao Dai (the last emperor) was de-throned by Ho Chi Minh’s forces in 1945.

After scouring the grounds (most buildings were destroyed by a fire in 1945, and others later damaged in the 1968 Tet Offensive), I took in Dong Ba Cho (cho means “market”), the central market and pulled up a mini-stool for some snacks at on one of the many street vendors. The best food in Vietnam by far is the street food, but I don’t always know exactly what I am eating.

I was later befriended by a local musician who took me to his mother’s for lunch and after that to a traditional wrestling match, far outside the city center. Apparently, they hold a festival every year during the Tet holidays (which last 10 days) where a wrestling match is featured. This is unique to Hue. Being crammed on bamboo stands with the locals, cheering on the sweaty wrestlers, was something definitely not on the tourist agenda, and I enjoyed it immensely.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Hoa's Place

I spent the last 48 at Hoa’s Place, at Non Nuoc Beach, a sandy little settlement between Hoi An and Da Nang. Hoa, who speaks decent American-accented English (sprinkled liberally with 70's era American slang and wear words), is somewhat famous among the backpacker crowd, and people turn up regularly to hang out and partake of the good food and vibes. He rents out 5 basic rooms at his own place and also handles rooms for 3 of his neighbors’ houses (who don’t speak English). Hoa also maintains a small restaurant with excellent food and ice cold drinks that operates on the honor system. You order and drink what you want, then write it on your page in the book on the counter and settle up before you leave town. The evening meals are family style – basically all you can eat for $3, while sharing dishes with your fellow guests at a long table. And while the guests are all foreigners, it is a mellow spot – the antidote for the tourist packed venues of Hoi An and Nha Trang. I was happy to meet and spend some time with an English couple that is on a one-year holiday before emigrating to the Gold Coast of Australia.

Hoa was a bright spot for this somewhat weary traveler. He was the first to admit that everyone out there will try to cheat you, and cautioned me several times, on Hanoi especially. Sharing stories with Kelly and Anthony (the Brits), I am afraid that being ripped off is all too common, and it certainly colors an independent traveler's experience here. Package tourists don't get the hit, as they pay in advance and have all buses, meals etc. handled for them. I have tried to explain to people the contrast with Myanmar, where you don't get cheated or ripped off, and you can just relax (for lack of a better word). I guess I took it a bit for granted when I was there.

The surf, while sizable, was not that appealing. It comes in slowly over an unbroken 30 kilometer beach, which leads to lots currents and closeouts. A few guys in full suits paddled out on the second day, but I just couldn't get interested.