helping clean up effects of agent orange in Vietnam
06.18.2011 - 06.18.2011
...so let's go already!
helping clean up effects of agent orange in Vietnam
06.18.2011 - 06.18.2011
hue to hanoi
06.12.2011 - 06.16.2011
the bus ride from hoi an to hue was pretty nice. it was in private air conditioned vehicles, so can't complain about that too much. we drove by some pretty beaches full of fisherman's tubs - these brown (wooden?) basket-like capsules that they stash fish and such in on the shores. then we drove up and through a pretty windy but scenic mountian pass called hai van. looking up at it as we approached was pretty with lots of clouds covering the mountains,then looking down at the shore lines below as we wound our way up it was pretty. we took a short break at the top to take some photos and then made our way down and into the city of hue.
hue was mildly bustling, all relative to saigon of course. we got in right before dinner, so that's pretty much all we did the first evening. there is a local specialty that consists of rice pancakes with seafood and they come wrapped in banana leaves that was pretty tasty. another local specialty was a pork stick where the stick was lemongrass. yum! these were good to replace the yummy specialties of hoi an, namely "white rose" which is a pork dumpling that looks like a little white rose and comes with fried onions on top.
the next day, i set out with laura and juanita, the colombian girls, to see the imperial citadel and a couple famous tombs. there's not too much else to see in hue. however, the temperature was something ridiculous like 100 degrees. i think it was more than that judging by the amount of sweat that it produced. the citadel was fairly disappointing - not in the best condition and it's only from the 1800's. also there wasn't much on display. we had to walk a lot to cover the extensive grounds though in the brutal heat it was no easy feat. there were a couple interesting temples, but that was about it. we opted to get a taxi to take us to two of the tombs. we soon learned we were being ripped off as even though he was using the meter, the meter fee was really high. so we bailed on him after the second tomb thinking we could just get a taxi on our way out. au contraire. there were no taxis to be found except one who was waiting for someone who was sight seeing inside the tomb. we were talking to another english-speaking couple who was trying to get a taxi as well and apparently the taxi driver was actually too scared to drive any of us into town because he was threatened by the people trying to push us onto cyclos aka motorbikes. finally a female vendor called a taxi for us to pick us up and luckily he didn't charge a huge fee like the other guy.
that was all for hue. then we all boarded an early evening overnight train to hanoi. this train was more like our first one so it was a bit cleaner and less gross. although i ended up not being able to sleep at all (almost all of us struggled to sleep on this one) because of the positioning of the beds. because the beds were perpendicular to the tracks, it made your body slide and rock up and down in the bed. so you literally couldn't lie still. it was awful. then we were near a bathroom and the door kept slamming open and shut because the lock was broken. then there was a man chain smoking out the window nearby too (technically not allowed). sigh. but we got to hanoi early, had a fairly quick breakfast at our hotel where we left most of our luggage. then we boarded a bus to take us to halong bay which was a 3 hour journey away.
halong bay was awesome. we boarded two sleeper boats and enjoyed a sumptuous seafood feast. seriously, like 6 courses! and really yummy. i had to have the waiter help me with opening my prawns and crabs, but i was busting open some prawns all by myself eventually. i am so proud. the scenery of all the limestone karst cliffs in the bay is stunning. the water becomes a nice shade of jade green. and the sunset was beautiful and sooooo relaxing on the boat from atop the sun deck on top. it was so peaceful compared to our hectic journeys of cities in vietnam. we did a lot of hanging out, eating, we hiked to the top of one of the cliffs for some amazing views, we also hiked into a biiiiiig cave. it was a lot more interesting than luray caverns back home. and we swam in the refreshing waters we had another sumptuous dinner, then we played a "pub quiz" via our tour leader about vietnam, the vietnamese war and general knowledge about the u.s., england etc. i was the only yank and one of my team members was british. so we definitely had a leg up on that one. so of course our group (which we dubbed sarah jessica horser) won! we got some money from everyone in the group which we used to purchase some beverages for our last dinner last night.
the next morning we had breakfast, some people went kayaking - i opted to stay on the boat and read and relax. then we headed back to hanoi and checked back into our hotel mid afternoon. that evening we explored a little bit around the hotel, but this place is insane. i thought saigon was bad. there are even more motorbikes here. and there is even crazier traffic. you can't stop paying attention at all while you're walking. motorbikes come at you from every direction, even on the sidewalks. they also don't yield to pedestrians here. it's the reverse. so cars, bikes, motorbikes all just go right at you, and you basically have to dodge out of the way. there's incessant honking. i kind of hate it. plus it's been brutally hot and humid.
yesterday we did some sight seeing at the mausoleum where ho chi minh's body is on display preserved in a glass case. apparently against his will. they take him very seriously. he's like a god to them here. so going there, you have to dress appropriately (no short sleeves or shorts) and you can't even put your hands in your pockets or behind your back cause it's seen as disrespectful. we also did a city tour on a small golf cart that moved incredibly slowly through the crazy streets. finally did some shopping until our final group dinner which was really fun. everyone is more or less moving on today. several people have already left for the airport. there's a few of us left. i leave tonight on an overnight train to sapa, which is out in the mountains close to china. it should be cooler there. i'm doing a tour there that includes a homestay and some trekking through villages of the hmong tribes and markets and waterfalls and cool things like that. the scenery is supposed to be amazing. can't wait to get out of hanoi. it's hanoi-ing!
oh p.s. they call bathroom "happy rooms" here. indeed they are!
beaches and small towns
06.08.2011 - 06.11.2011
we had three full days in nha trang. it started out as a sleepy little beach town, or at least compared to the hectic craziness of saigon. but starting on the second day, and much more so by the third day, it started getting really crowded and busy and hectic. sigh. but for good reason i suppose. june 11 was going to be a big celebration there. people started pouring in. stages were set up. performers were rehearsing with flag routines and dances with loud music. there were lights set up over, about and around most streets in town. it was happenin'. but we unfortunately had to leave a couple days before it all got into full swing.
what did i do in nha trang, you ask? not much really. as i did the first day, i spent the second day at the same beach club. that time however, recovering from a very brutal sunburn from the first day, i spent the entire day under the umbrella and read. i started reading the millenium trilogy, aka the girl with the dragon tattoo. i was trying to read catch-22 because i feel like i should read it. but i was having a hard time getting into it. luckily street vendors come around and sell you cheap (photocopied) books. so that's when i decided to read the dragon tattoo. and i actually became slightly obsessed with it and finished it in three days. now i'm onto the second one in the series. anyway. that's not that exciting. moving on.
a bunch of people (read my entire group except sharon and i) went on a boat trip for that second day. supposedly it was going to involve lunch, snorkeling, and swimming in pretty water around a few islands. sounded fun, but i opted out because of my sunburn (yes, it was that bad...) and i was quite glad i did because the report from the group after they got back was not so great. the trip didn't pan out exactly as they had been told (the main lesson i've learned here is that you really can't assume anything here in se asia. nothing ever happens or comes out the way you think it will. sometimes it's bad, sometimes it's good. you just have to shrug it off as "part of the experience"). that evening consisted of me eating an entire pizza by myself because i was too hungry to wait for everyone else for dinner at this expensive sailing club restaurant. so at the sailing club i just got dessert.
the third day in nha trang six of us took a cab to these well-known mud baths and hot springs. once again, it wasn't exactly as we had envisioned it. it felt a bit more water/theme park than relaxing spa day. but it was still fun. and my skin did feel incredibly smooth afterwards. we started off with a shower in mineral water, followed by a group soak in a semi-private 6 person jacuzzi kind of tub with the mud. it was very cozy in our tub and we were in a row of tubs with other bathers. so not really that private. but you wear bathing suits so it's not that weird. after the mud, you let it dry in the sun for a bit, then rinse it off. then you go to a weird pathway with spouts on either side that sprays you with mineral water. then you soak for a bit in another 6 person jacuzzi type tub with hot mineral water. this was borderline harsh on my sunburn ouch! finally, we were allowed to swim in their mineral swimming pools and waterfalls for an unlimited amount of time. but the water was hot and the place was just really crowded and dirty. we didn't stay too long before heading back.
sharon and i had a nice dinner of fried rice - hers in a pineapple, mine in a coconut and ali (from australia) bought me some tim tams she found in the convenience store! somehow i missed them. they are these delicious chocolatey biscuits that are from australia. i need to find them in the u.s. because they are so tasty.
that night we boarded another overnight train. only this time, it was not as nice as the first. and by not as nice i mean pretty disgusting. our bunk room had a mysterious yellowish puddle in it. there were hairs all over the walls and beds. the conditions were just gross. apparently the carriage next to ours was nicer like the one we were on at first, and annoyingly another similar type of tour group (damn you, intrepid) was on that carriage. our tour leader said the reason tucan keeps booking the cabin like we were in was because no one from previous tours had complained. i'm not sure if that's true or what. but i think all of us will be complaining. oh, we also saw a mouse in our cabin. we plugged up the hole with paper. thank goodness we all had sleeping sheets otherwise it would have been worse. but actually what did make the whole experience worse was the train left at least an hour late. and arrived like 3 hours late. so we wasted half our morning on the train instead of in hoi an.
we finally got to hoi an and immediately checked in, did a brief walking tour and ate lunch. the town is really quaint, old and cute. it's not busy like the other places. and there are lanterns lit up all over. the town is close to a river and there are cool old fashioned covered bridges and lit up decorations in the water. it's also only 4 km from cua dai beach. at lunch yesterday it rained buckets. once we were done, our leader took us to a famous tailor shop (the town is famous for it's tailors) who can make you custom made dresses, shoes, suits, coats etc etc in a day. i didn't get anything since i don't really need any of those things but also cause the prices really weren't that cheaper than the states. maybe if you wore an odd size then it'd be worth it. we strolled around town throughout the evening and grabbed dinner.
today we rented bikes and rode out to the beach. we found an empty beach resort where we stayed (under the umbrella of course) for most of the day. they had a pool too so we swam though the ocean was much more refreshing. after lazing about for a bit, we stopped a really cute little restaurant on the river and incidentally met up with some others from our group (yay for being a small town!). i ended up buying a couple little sundresses from a tailor shop. i didn't have to have them tailored because the ones off the mannequins fit perfectly ("you are small like vietnamese girl!" the seamstress said to me). a few other girls i was with are having some things tailored so we have to go back for fittings. we have dinner tonight then the morning tomorrow before we take a private bus to hue. the drive there is supposed to be rather spectacular. it goes through a really pretty mountain pass.
a lovely little retreat
06.05.2011 - 06.07.2011
so facebook is banned in vietnam. but apparently it's available some places cause i was just able to use it here in nha trang. but don't think it will happen too often. anyway, much to catch up on! so let's see. ho chi minh city aka saigon. we got a bunch of new people and they're all older like mid 40's-50's. they're all aussies. they are LOUD and obnoxious. the rest of us "youngsters" are the quite ones. strange i know. some of them were friends before but not all. but they seem to have all really bonded and they sing and laugh and talk incessantly at high decibels. the group is kinda split now between old and young. but everyone seems ok. no hard feelings.
so the next morning we left early on a bus for the mekong delta, about 3 hours away from saigon. we hopped on a covered long boat on the river there and our guide Nam took us to lots of little cottage industry places around the delta. it was really cool! they talked to us about making rice, coffins (random i know), palm leaf thatched roofs, a farm where they grew lots of yummy fruits and veggies we got to sample (i can safely say i love jack fruit. it's like canteloupe only good!). we also went to a place where they had a huge boa constrictor we got to hold (yes i held it, with someone else cause it was big) and they even had snake wine which is rice wine in a big jug with a deheaded cobra fermenting in it. delicious no? if only u.s. customs would allow me to bring it back to the states, i would bring some for you all to try! it's supposed to have some medicinal qualities?
one of the best stops was lunch yum! the place fixed us this fantastic 3-4 course meal. they carved little vietnamese life figurines out of cucumbers and other veggies as the display on our dishes. and the food was just amazing. my favorite was a local fish, which normally would have terrified me. it came out upright on a play with scales on the sides and the head and everything intact. the outside had a bunch of seasonings on it. they helped us pick off the fish flesh and put them in little rice paper rolls with veggies. and then dip it in some delicious sauce. the fish was not fishy at all, just delicious. i think it was elephant fish? they also brought out full prawns with the heads and everything on them. i had the man de-shell it for me, and then i ate it. i'm a big baby i know. but it was yummy as well. there was also a soup made with egg whites that had a egg-white consistency but tasted amazing. and instead of chicken i opted for sauteed mushrooms with rice. shocking for me! they were really good too. after lunch, we walked over to a crocodile farm nearby with really tiny crocs that they farm for goods we also got to go in some small rowboats down a narrower canal for about 30 minutes which i really liked. we also got to wear the conical hats for the ride which satiated my need to wear one so now i don't have to buy one and lug it around all of vietnam.
Nam then took us to our homestay location where two very kind young vietnamese ladies helped us get set up in our rooms with mosquito nets. it was kinda communal style rooms with lots of beds in them. but sharon and natalie (from south africa) shared a 3 person room yay. Nam took us on a bike tour around the village area and it was really surreal. i know i use that word a lot. but it's the best way i can describe it. we biked through these narrow sidewalks and dirt paths, over little cement bridges over canals, passing people's little huts, fires burning, kids playing outside saying "hello!" to us as we passed. we were in basically a jungle slash mangrove area. there were chickens and dogs and cats and people passing us on these narrow sidewalks on their motorbikes. we had a couple mishaps with people in the group losing a flip flop, my flip flop breaking, and someone falling off their bike into the bushes. but no serious injuries. i didn't take my camera cause it looked like it was going to rain, slash i was on a bike, so you know, kinda hard to take photos at the same time. i wish you could see my mental pictures, they're pretty awesome!
after our ride, we showered and hung out before dinner. we were entertained by some local musicians playing local instruments and music. a woman and a man also sang for us, accompanied by the musicians and acted out local songs. they were all really talented, but the feeling was very laid back and hospitable. they are very proud of their mekong delta heritage and were excited to share a piece of it with us. the food was awesome. we had a similar fish kind of to the one we had at lunch, but prepared differently. but we wrapped it in with veggies in rice paper wraps as well. the food was stellar. we finished with some prawn crackers (delicious) and some fruit. then went to bed early since we had an early 6:30 am start the next morning.
6:30 am breakfast, then on the boats with our gear to see the floating markets. it was just a bunch of boats that come to this one canal to sell their stuff. we then went to see rice paper treats and rice cracker treats and coconut candy being made. i bought some for some of our long train/bus journeys to replace my pringles that were almost gone ha. the treats were all really tasty. we arrived back in saigon, had a short break for lunch, i had to quickly buy some new flip flops and then we were off again to see the cu chi tunnels. the tunnels were used by the viet cong during the vietnamese war. i got to go in one little crouch hole with a lid for a nice photo opp and then went down one of the regular underground tunnels for 20 meters. you have to crouch over at your waist to get through, but apparently they've widened them for tourists. but they are still pretty tiny. we were forced to watch a total vietnamese war (biased of course) propaganda video from 1967, mid war. that was interesting. then back to saigon for dinner (which was a bust and i ended up having to get a pizza hut pizza and garlic bread for the train instead) and then to the overnight train to nha trang (aka the beach!)
the old heads were insanely loud on the train. they were drinking and singing at the tops of their lungs (songs ranging from opera? to the theme some from giligan's island). i slept poorly on this train unfortunately. though i guess techincally it was nicer than our train into laos. martin our tour leader says that the next trains in vietnam won't be as nice though...
in nha trang now. we arrived early this morn, got showered. then hit the beach! mostly i was under the umbrella. i went in the water which was nice and a nearby pool. and somehow i am really, really burned. maybe the sun is stronger here? anyway, going to go recuperate for a bit before our group meal. hasta luego!
thoughts on vietnam
06.03.2011 - 06.04.2011
good morning, (from) vietnam! and actually it's now afternoon here. but anyways.
after the better portion of a day on the bus, we made it to ho chi minh city. first impressions: hectic. there are eleventy billion motorbikes. and i thought cambodia had a lot. psh. they got nothing on vietnam. i took some nice video of an intersection just near our hotel of motorbikes passing. it's insane. and the way the traffic moves is insane. there are some kind of traffic signals, but not at most intersections, and even if there are, they seem to only heed them as a suggestion. so to cross the street here, you must go against all common sense and basically just walk out into traffic and they supposedly will flow around you. it's kinda like the game frogger slash that episode of seinfeld, but instead of making jerky movements from side to side and forward and back, you kinda weave and the cars and bikes weave around you too. it's like a zipper effect. each time we cross a street, we sigh with relief.
in other news here in vietnam, they loooove badmitton. there are nets set up in parks and people playing pick up games too. then there is a version of hackey sack that is uber popular that involves not a sack but rather the shuttle from badmitton. some people are really good at the game too. it's quite impressive. apparently they are big on health here, so certain times of day (namely early) there are people doing tai chi in the parks. and then today we saw a park that all this exercise equipment in it, one of which was like a nordic track/gazelle machine. pretty cool.
yesterday just involved a short orientation walking tour by our leader. then a few of us explored one of the (touristy) markets nearby. it was like nothing i've ever experienced. as in the sales people actually grab your by the arm and touch you a lot asking, "what are you looking for? how can i help you? come take a look!" we were only interested in finding spring rolls. once we got through to that section, a woman actually grabbed my arm and pulled me to a stool. so we just went with it. we ordered fried and fresh spring rolls. it was all well and good, except for the fact that the old lady would yell things in our ears and hover over us while we ate to show us what sauces to dip things in. a bit annoying. but we survived. sharon and i holed up in the hotel room for a bit and caught up on world news via our wifi yay. and we were lucky enough to catch some a-movies on tv, i.e. nothing to lose starring martin lawrence and tim robbins and something with steven seagal (so you know it must be good...). we went out with the tour group for a nice dinner nearby. i tried something that purportedly had carmelized mushrooms and tofu in a clay pot. i'm not sure anything was carmelized, but as some of you may know, me eating mushrooms is a kind of big deal. i'm all grown up now! it was mildly tasty, but tonight i'm going for one of the vietnamese pancakes. i had an early night last night. apparently sitting all day on a bus is exhausting.
today sharon and i hit independence palace and the war remnants museum. the palace was strange. straight from the 70's. and not very palatial in that sense of the word. then there were map room, communication rooms with bat phones in them. there were helicopters, tankers and planes on the grounds on display, leftover from the war. i guess they haven't changed a thing about the set up of the inside, cause there's even visible dust on the presidential meeting room tables. the war remnants museum is a very one-sided approach to the vietnam (and french-indochine) war. it is very anti-american, which i don't really blame them for considering some of the things that did occur during that time. there were some very graphic images of war brutalities, as well as effects of agent orange which were not pretty. there was an extremely well-written and moving letter from a 23 yr-old vietnamese boy to president obama in which he asked for some aid from the u.s. gov't for victims of agent orange in vietnam. we only had an hour at the museum cause they closed for siesta (?) at noon. but we got to see most of it i think. apparently the museum used to be called something like the museum of american war crimes, but they decided to change the name so they'd at least get some american tourists...
we indulged in some yogen fruz frozen yogurt. our body temperatures are soaring and we're basically melting here it's sooooo hot. food just wasn't appetizing even though it was lunch time. after we did some major dvd and other shopping, i tried a pork bun from a street vendor. i didn't finish it though when the meat started looking pink and there was a mysterious egg-like product inside. so instead i got a hot dog pizza thingy from a bakery which was actually really good. they have hot dogs all over here. and i didn't realize it, but i think i might really miss hot dogs from the u.s. so i was pretty excited to try one.
i have also noticed if you order a drink with ice here, you get like 60% ice and 40% drink. a bit disappointing. kathy would maybe be very happy though tonight is another group dinner where we will meet the 8 new people in our group. our group will be growing from 12 to 18! we're losing 2 people, and older couple, and gaining i think 8 more old heads...yay. tomorrow we leave for an overnight tour of the mekong delta where we will do a homestay on the river. i'm going to buy one of those cone hats...because i can. and yes, people actually wear them here so it's acceptable i feel.