Saturday, May 30, 2009
Sapa is a hill town in the far northwest of Vietnam with stunning natural beauty. All around us were green hills and mountains shrouded in a layer of fog. The hills have been painstakingly carved with rice terraces, with an intricate irrigation system to flood the terraces and bring water down the fields. Over the course of two days, we hiked about 10 miles through some very muddy but always gorgeous terrain.
Sapa is home to a diverse group of hill tribes, including the Black Hmong. The Hmong are very poor and look to the influx of tourists to their home as a way to help their livelihoods. From the moment we arrived in Sapa and on our hike, we were accompanied by a group of enterprising Hmong women eager to chat us up and help us along the trail. The trails were sometimes very steep and usually very muddy and slippery but the Hmong women, this being their home, seemed to deftly crawl over the trails in flip-flops even while carrying large baskets on their backs. We were not so skilled, and so we ended up taking advantage of their help. What they asked in return - quite persistently we learned - was that we buy some of their wares. I bought a little bracelet and a woven case for my passport.
As we trekked through rice fields, we walked through rice farms and local villages and were treated to a glimpse of local life. The Hmong are very poor and we encountered more than a few children walking around with no underwear. (Our host sang a song about this later that night)
After about 7 miles of hiking on the first day, we checked into our homestay, with Mr. Chin in the Bac Ho Village. Mr. Chin was quite the host. He didn't speak a word of English but was quite amused to host us. During dinner, he brought out a few bottles of "happy water" (distilled rice liquor) and fed us rounds and rounds of shots all night. Of course it would've been rude to refuse, so we demurred, and I think we were 10+ deep by the time it was all over. It was a great night - things got more and more fun as the night went on. I had great travel companions - a group of English and two Canadians - and we all had a fun time.
After we were all a little tipsy, our tour guide proposed first a toast to Vietnam, then to Canada, then to the UK, and then to the US - each of which was followed by a drunken rendition of the national anthem performed by the respective nationals ("Vietnam song! Canada song! England song! USA song!"). Of course I represented our country quite well - and a good time was had by all.
I think you will enjoy our host's performance of Vietnam's national anthem ("Vietnam! Ho Chi Minh! Vietnam! Ho Chi Minh!"). See video below.
All in all, an awesome last few days here as my time in Vietnam comes to a close. On Monday I fly back to Thailand where I plan to chill out on the beach and dive with the fishies.
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
The hike up was a bit muddy...
Saturday, May 23, 2009
Lots of women walk around with yokes on their shoulders carrying items for sale.
I came to the guesthouse at 5:30 in the morning and was glad to see it was open so I could get in and take a shower and put my things down. It was barely open though - the dude was sleeping on the floor and I woke him up. When I tried to pay he just yelled "later! later" and went back to sleep.
Took a shower, had pho for breakfast and going to catch some zzzzs now.
Thursday, May 21, 2009
We took a little boat inside the caves and then were able to actually get out and walk around inside them a bit. The Phong Nha cave system is one of the largest in the world and the part that is accessible to the public is only the tip of the iceberg. I was floored by how cool it was and after screwing with my camera settings a little bit was able to get a lot of decent pictures.
One of the interesting things about Phong Nha is that it hasn't yet become a popular destination for Western visitors so it was off the beaten path a bit. There were plenty of other visitors - but pretty much all Vietnamese save for one Australian guy.
I was chatting with one of the Vietnamese guys in my group and at lunch he told me that he hates the communists and wishes they could have freedom and choice like in America. Interesting.
I spent more time in that bumpy van today (7.5 hours total, there and back) but the hour and a half at the caves was totally worth it.
[Yes the artificial colored lighting is a little Disney-cheesy but kind of cool too]
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
I made it safely to Hue this morning and so far it's a pleasant place. I honestly don't have much to say so just enjoy these 2 pictures for now (you can be the judge of my new haircut).
Tomorrow I'm off to visit the Phong Nha cave, which I'm really excited about and I'm sure I'll have plenty of pictures to share after that.
[Someone commented that I look unhappy in my picture - that's because the guy who was using my camera touched the lens and looked like he was about to drop the camera so I just wanted him to take the damn picture and give me my camera back!]
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
I spent today in Hoi An, which is something of a tourist trap-Disneyland ancient Vietnam experience. I had given myself a day and a half to explore the town but I had basically seen everything and was bored to tears within two hours.
Luckily, there is a great beach about 4 km from the town, so I rented a bicycle from my guesthouse and rode down there. As I rode over, I thought about how ridiculously charming this was - riding this rusty bicycle to the beach in this quaint little ancient town, passing by grazing oxen along the way. The kind of thing that my more sarcastic side would laugh at but it was great.
The beach was awesome! I waded in the ocean a bit, sprawled out on one of those reclining chairs and finished The Sun Also Rises (I am trying to read on this trip as I don't do that enough so I am glad to have already finished one book), napped, and listened to music. I must have spent four hours on that beach. It was great. I was so relaxed. I have a lot of beach time planned later in the trip so just today was enough for now.
I don't have much else to say about Hoi An except that it's this quaint little town, full of tourists and shops selling things to tourists. I think it's great for middle-aged ladies, but for me, not so much. I'm on to the next place tomorrow morning, but here are some pictures:
Also there are little doggies everywhere. Some of them are really cute!
Monday, May 18, 2009
In Saigon I visited the Reunification Palace, the former seat of the South Vietnam government, and the War Remnants Museum, an extended exposition of American savagery towards the Vietnamese during the War as told from the perspective of the Hanoi government. Both were only mildly interesting but obligatory while I was here. It's interesting to see the war described from their point of view and yet with Vietnam now a market economy and open to the world, the museum and the whole discussion of the war seem a bit dated and even irrelevant.
I also took a day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels built by the Viet Cong and the Cao Dai Temple, the seat of a relatively newt Vietnamese religion that combines elements of Confucianism, Taoism, and Islam. It is a very strange religion indeed, even claiming Victor Hugo as one its saints. Bizarre.
At the temple, we wandered around a bit and then stayed to watch their ceremonial chanting at noon:
The Cu Chi Tunnels were a large network of tunnels built during the French occupation and expanded during the American war (as they call it here). The tunnels extended several kilometers and housed thousands of Viet Cong guerilla soldiers and their families. It allowed them to pop out of the ground, quickly attack, and disappear. We got to go into one of those tunnels, and they were really small and dark! Some of the girls freaked out and turned around and ran out the way they came in as soon as it started getting dark. I was amused.
During the tunnel tour, I met an American girl from Chicago, a 20-something accountant with KPMG on assignment in Saigon for a few months. Again, the reminders of change in this country are everywhere.
This picture of the tunnels is lit only because of the flash from my camera - when we were walking through it was pretty much pitch-black. They're also extremely small and narrow - I had to hunch over and crouch through the whole way and I'm really short (then again so are the Vietnamese, but taller folks might have a lot more trouble moving through around here).
One thing that I should mention again about this city is how fast it is developing. I've been to a trendy little cafe/bakery a few times to use their wi-fi and it is as comfortable and nice as any in the West and a good place to glimpse the changes occurring all around here. The Vietnamese have a strong cafe culture here - in the rural Mekong Delta these cafes simply consisted of a few stools, lounge chairs, and tables set out on a sparse patio and while there are many like that here in Saigon, there are also quite a few much trendier, upscale coffeehouses that cater to young upwardly mobile Vitenamese and Westerners. They have free wi-fi, friendly English-speaking staff who smile and greet you upon entering (just like at any store at the mall in the US - trust me, that's not comon at all here so it caught me a little off-guard the first few times), and a nice vibe and great setting like any nice coffeeshop in the West. The prices ($2 for a cup of coffee, compared to $0.50 or less elsewhere) are also much like in the West. At these coffeeshops you can get a glimpse of the pace of change in Saigon - you see young Vietnamese tapping away on their laptops and iPhones and today the gentleman next to me was filling out paperwork for his Schengen visa, apparently on his way to spending some time in the EU. The clerk this morning conversed with me a bit - first in English, then in Chinese - she decided she doesn't like studying English so she is studying Chinese at a language school to prepare for a career in business. Her Chinese was probably better than mine...
Saigon is the economic engine of the country - there is construction everywhere and it is hard not to appreciate the dizzying pace of change. It is fascinating to contemplate what this city will look like in ten or twenty years.
Still, I'm ready to move on and see a quieter, more splendid side of Vietnam as I go on to explore some of the historical towns and the natural beauty of the North.
My breakfast today was a chicken (or pork? not sure) noodle soup, pretty typical here:
Price: 10,000 dong (~60 cents)
Saturday, May 16, 2009
Not much new to report, but making sure to post so those loved ones out there know I'm still alive and well. I've been wandering around Saigon a bit exploring and checking out the obligatory tourist sites yesterday and today. Nice but nothing too noteworthy, except that I got a haircut. Fairly decent, I must say. Ended up costing me about $6, which was more than they quoted but I wasn't in a position to argue. They kept trying to push me to get a massage and then seemed really annoyed when I declined. Oh well.
Saigon is remarkably clean, efficient, and orderly for a "developing" country. One of the bext examples is the crazy road traffic, which seems to just work. I took a video of some typical Saigon traffic - note how everything keeps moving, people constantly look like they're about to hit each other, but no one ever does:
The consequence of all these motorbikes is that the air quality is pretty poor. I woke up this morning with a bit of a sore throat and panicked that I might be sick, but then after getting up and feeling fine otherwise (even took my temperature) I began to realize that it's just from breathing all this crap in the air...
Tomorrow I'm doing the tour thing again, to the Cu Chi tunnels (used by the Viet Cong) and then some temple. Monday I fly to Da Nang ($38, was cheaper than the train) and then from there to visit Hoi An and Hue. I'm trying to plan a visit to Phong Nha Cave after that but it seems difficult to find information online - I'm a little wary of just showing up and trying to find my way over though I'll probably end up doing that. Then up to Hanoi and then Sapa and finally Ha Long Bay before heading back to Thailand. I've been in Southeast Asia for only 11 days or so now (out of a 70 day trip) but it feels like it's been longer!
Friday, May 15, 2009
Saigon is a great city. I explored a bit on foot today and am falling in love with this place. The city is vibrant and full of character. The streets are full of motorbikes that seem to engage in a grand dance with pedestrians and cars, with near misses everywhere but few collisions. I've learned to brave the traffic by doing just as they say in the guidebook - walk slowly and deliberately across the street and the bikes will just swerve around you. It's pretty neat.
This evening as I walked back to Pham Ngu Lao, the backpackers' area where I am staying, I passed through the park and was delighted to see so many people out and about. There were teenagers everywhere playing hackysack and badminton and tennis. There were tons of folks just walking around, hanging out, exercising and doing all sorts of things.
But by far, the coolest thing was the jazzercise in the park! There was a group of 20-30 people, men and women of all ages (toddlers to seniors), dancing and doing aerobics to this great upbeat dance music in a little chalet on the park. I ended up staying and watching for over an hour - some people left and others joined the group but the dancing kept going! I spoke with a local briefly and he informed me that they do this every day. As I was leaving the park, I noticed that there were little jazzercise groupings everywhere!
It was really cool. See video (sorry, lighting is terrible):
At a very trendy little coffeehouse right now. More on Saigon later. It really is quite a lovely city.
Thursday, May 14, 2009
I think that on this blog, as in real-life, I sometimes talk too much. Many of you have expressed interest in seeing more pictures of my trip, so to cover the last few days I'll include some pictures. Suffice to say it was quite pleasant. It was quiet and relaxed, which was a nice change of pace after my first week in bustling Bangkok and then dusty Cambodia. The highlight of this stretch was probably cruising down the Mekong talking politics with the businesswoman from Singapore and the Naval officer from England! The best part of traveling is definitely meeting other people.
A note on fellow travelers: I am wondering - Where are the Americans? In my travels so far I have met a Russian, a Japanese, a Dutchman, some Singaporeans, some Brits, some French, some Aussies, some New Zealanders, some Spanish, and lots of Canadians. But no Americans! I've overheard some people chatting with American accents but haven't interacted with any yet. Though the last few people that I thought were Americans that I talked to ended up being Canadians. The Englishman and I were discussing this and we hypothesized that maybe it is because Americans have so much to see domestically that they don't venture out as much. Regardless, it would be nice to see a few more Americans joining the global community of backpackers.
A note on prices - some of you have commented that you are interested in knowing what kind of prices I am paying for various things as it may be helpful in planning future travels. So for the last few days:
3-day tour through Mekong Delta, including tour guides and sightseeing, transportation from Phnom Penh to Saigon, 2 nights' accommodations (1 night hotel, 1 night homestay), 2 breakfasts, 1 lunch and 1 dinner: $49
Room in Saigon for tonight (fan and TV): $6
My dinner tonight (pho): $1.50 + $0.50 for iced tea
One hour of internet at the internet cafe: $0.35
(edit: found another internet cafe that is cheaper, around $0.25/hr)
Meeting random people from around the world: Priceless
My hair is getting a little out of control so I think will get a haircut while I am here in Saigon. I'm a little apprehensive about this....
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Monday, May 11, 2009
I took an organized city tour of Phnom Penh today. Our morning started on a somber note, first visiting the Killing Fields, a complex of mass graves outside Phnom Penh where thousands were killed by the Khmer Rouge. Over the course of the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror, around 2 million people died, and the country is still recovering from this reign of terror and the ensuing civil war. It gives me new respect for the hardworking and generally friendly people of Cambodia and puts my earlier complaints about the city in perspective. One other thing to keep in mind about Phnom Penh is that it is a city that has been through hell - in the 1970s the population of the city first swelled as refugees flowed in from the countryside to avoid American bombing and then emptied out as the Pol Pot regime expelled everyone from the city, leaving it a virtual ghost town, and decimated the population, including killing all the educated elite. Today Phnom Penh is rising from those ashes, and while still a bit rough, is peaceful, stable, and growing.
As we walked around the Killing Fields, some of the paths had exposed bones coming out of the ground. Pretty gruesome. The image of skulls above comes from a display at the center of the Killing Fields that stacks some of the skulls that were collected from around the site. One of the more haunting moments came as I tried to photograph them - my camera has facial recognition software that automatically detects and focuses on faces when taking shots of people and as I put my camera up to take pictures of the skulls, the facial recognition activated around the skulls. It reminded me of the obvious but something that's easy to forget in the moment - that these each of these skulls once belonged to someone who was painfully tortured and killed at the hands of a genocidal regime.
I must say I didn't know much about the Khmer Rouge before coming here and read up a bit before my trip. It is a history that is both alarming and gripping.
We then went to the Genocide Museum, a former high school that had been transformed into the main detention center for political prisoners. The prisoners here were intellectuals and professors, former government officials, dissidents within the Pol Pot regime, their relatives and children, and a whole host of others. Here are the famous images that, along with the skulls above, capture the essence of the Cambodian genocide for most outsiders:
There were signs all around the monument advising us not to smile, as this is a very serious and somber subject. Stripped of its context though, the sign is a bit amusing:
Waterboarding has been discussed widely in the U.S. and it is perhaps unfortunate that it has become something of a late-night punchline, with few stopping to discuss or contemplate the seriousness of the act. It was in fact a signature torture technique of the Pol Pot regime and that was on display here at the Genocide Museum. The 1st image is one of many artistic renderings in the site depicting waterboarding and the 2nd is of a large pot that was routinely filled with filthy water and then used to waterboard political prisoners.
Later in the tour we visited the National Museum, Royal Palace, and Silver Pagoda. These were quite a contrast to the morning's tour of carnage and remind the visitor that the Khmer (Cambodian) civilization has a deep and rich heritage despite its recent troubled past.
I was joined on this tour (organized by our guesthouse) by two absolutely wonderful women from Spain - Aroa and Sonia. After our tour ended we chatted a bit over drinks and dinner, enjoying much lively conversation and sharing some travel tips. They were even so kind as to provide me with their map of Saigon and some extra mosquito repellent!
It's definitely true that one of the most rewarding parts of traveling is meeting other interesting travelers and I hope to continue that going forward.
Sonia, Aroa and I at the Silver Pagoda:
Yesterday I went to the mall here in Phnom Penh to buy some pants to cover my legs from the vicious mosquitoes (seen in the picture above). I felt a little guilty as most of the people at the mall did not have a great grasp of English (unlike those in any commercial context in Thailand) and were visibly frustrated as I failed to communicate effectively with them. Still, they were poised, polite and ever friendly and those that could speak English were helpful and humble in a way that I did not experience in Thailand.
One final, offbeat observation: At the mall, many (though to be fair, not most or even a majority of) people displayed a bit of anxiety at the tops and bottoms of escalators, apprehensively stepping on to them very deliberately, as if they might fall. I was first clued in to this quirk as I tried to get on an escalator and a crowd formed and backed up as a small group of Cambodian girls was scared to get on and just kind of stood at the bottom in fear. Some of them giggled and shrieked as they jumped on and some others backed out and took the stairs. Some adults also displayed some anxiety and stepped on to the escalators awkwardly as well. There are, as you can imagine, not many escalators around here...
Tomorrow I'm crossing into Vietnam and I'll be taking an organized boat tour of the Mekong Delta for the next three days. I'm not sure if I'll have decent Internet access or time to blog so you may not hear from me for a few days. Don't worry, I'm not dead (hopefully).