Archive for January, 2016

January 25, 2016

Vietnam Trip Wrap Up

That was some trip! So glad to have had the opportunity to go and see such a lovely country! Here are some things I learned, and a few tips, should you decide to go. In no particular order:

  1. Start in Hanoi, and finish in Ho Chi Minh. Don’t get a round trip in and out of the same city; you’ll spend your last couple of days just getting back to where you started! And Hanoi is a little less busy – so you’ll get in some practice!
  2. Don’t worry about bottled water – they’ll give you plenty. Almost everywhere we stayed, there was both bottled and filtered water available. We rarely had to purchase any.
  3. Don’t drink the tap water. The Vietnamese don’t, so you shouldn’t, either.
  4. Skip the hotel breakfast. Most offer a buffet, and while some were great – you’ll have a lot more fun and experience more if you go find out what the locals do for breakfast. Don’t mistake value for price here; just because it’s included doesn’t mean you have to have it.
  5. Eat where the locals eat. There are a few spots that cater to tourists that are awesome still, but our very best meals where at spots that were tourist free. Spicier food, more adventurous, and far less expensive. Don’t be shy; walk in sit down, and point at something that looks delicious. Most vendors will steer you away from stuff that is a hugely acquired taste.
  6. Skip Nha Trang. Medium sized city, but full of pushy tourists. Sure, you can get away to the beach (about a 25km drive). But I wouldn’t go back.
  7. Cross the street by walking in a straight line, and a steady pace and don’t look nervous. There are rarely speedy drivers, and few cars. They’ll go around you. If you are nervous, wait for a local to cross and stick with them. It’s sort of like magic.
  8. Don’t book in advance – you might arrive somewhere and have to stay for a couple of nights because you booked. Sure – if arriving late in the afternoon, and you think you’ll be tired¬† – book a room. But just for one night. If you like it, odds are great that you can extend.
  9. Go to Sapa. It’s up north, it can be colder, but well worth the visit. Plus you can by knock off down jackets for less than $20.
  10. Haggle,haggle, haggle, haggle – especial when buying merchandise or taking a cab. Don’t ever get in a cab without asking the price.
  11. Fly. It’s a long country – about 1,000 miles. So getting from Hanoi to Denang is either an overnight train or a $40 plane ride, and the plane takes an hour. Do it.
  12. Travel in the center of the country is a bit harder – getting from Hoi An to My Lai is a car ride. And not a lot of easy to find places to stay. So you’ll want to plan a bit more carefully for the spots between Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh.
  13. You can say “Saigon”. No one cares what you call the city.
  14. Ha Long Bay is gorgeous. Spend a bit more and get a boat that lets you swim, but also shows you the sights. Otherwise, you cruise out during the day, see stuff, and then cruise home. So do your research here.
  15. If you can avoid tours that select all of your food for you, your options for eating local go up!
  16. It’s okay to talk about the war. My Lai and the War Remnants Museum are great places to visit to learn more. And the Vietnamese have moved on; not a whiff of anti-American sentiment where we were.
  17. You probably don’t need a power adapter. Most phones/tablets will auto switch to the right voltage. Check your device to make sure – but we didn’t have any trouble.
  18. Pack less. You can buy toothpaste, shampoo, sun-screen, hats, t-shirts, shoes. We each carried less than 15 pounds. That means we cleared customs on both sides in 10 minutes and never had to wait for luggage.
  19. If you are from Seattle, have a map handy. When you say “Washington” the Vietnamese folks say “Obama”.
  20. Learn a few words. Hello, please, thank you. Amazing how far that gets you when chatting with the locals.


January 22, 2016

Day 23: Saigon and Home

Woke up early, skipped the hotel breakfast and went out for coffee and then noodles! See Puja’s picture! That was followed by a long walk along the river, back to the hotel to pack, and then one last walk for a final Banh Mi.

Then the bus to the airport to begin our 24 hour transfer to home. Sitting at the airport now having one last Vietnamese lager, and while not looking forward to the next 24 hors, am looking forward to arriving the same day we leave, thru a clever trick of time.

January 22, 2016

Day 22: War Remnants, Cu Chi Tunnel – Killing, in Other Words

We were up early to tour the Cu Chi tunnels, just outside of the city. They served as supply chain, home, hiding spots, and ways to attack.

I’m skinny, and I barely fit.

Imagine living in a country at war where your hope and determination for choosing your own government meant that you’d live in a tunnel with little air, water, and rampant disease. Just so you could choose.

I’m simplifying here. But a trip to the War Remnants Museum the same day kept bringing me back to that question.

And it also made me angry: for the entirety of my life we have fucked around in places because we dislike their political system. Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Chile, Iran, Iraq, Cuba. More.

Or¬†maybe it’s because we want what
they have; either way, it’s been a shitty deal for them and for us. (Unless you take the very jaded view that it’s always about money or resources). Even then, I don’t have to modify my language much: It’s been a shitty deal for the poor and middle class on both sides.

Meanwhile, we watched in Rwanda, in Syria, other places, maybe because they didn’t have what we want. I realize this also is an over-simplification; still. When it suits, we drop napalm and agent orange to get what we want (we literally deforested huge swathes of Vietnam – some math expert should send us a carbon tax bill for that). Other times, we idle while more poor and middle class persons are slaughtered and starved.

I don’t have a magic bell to ring to fix it. But more talking and less killing is probably a good start

January 21, 2016

Day 20 and 21: Getting to Saigon

Our plane to Saigon was delayed. Bummer: that turns into an extra 4 hours here in the island. Which meant sunning and swimming, and then a massage.

(Never has a masseuse hop up on the table for better leverage. God, I wish I were that flexible!)

We took the bus to our hotel. About the same speed as a taxi and way better sightseeing!

Walked into the backpackers district for Bun Cha. Delish! May have also had ice cream!

Tomorrow, the Cu Chi tunnels, the War Remembrance Museum, and Banh Mi!

January 18, 2016

Days 18-19: The Beach at Phu Quoc

Short post: Paradise Island! We are staying at Richis, a just opened beach hotel, and while they are putting extra touches up, it’s already fantastic.

At breakfast today, one of our hosts was pouring more coffee for me. I said “thank you” in Vietnamese, and she proceeded to teach me how to say “you’re welcome”, and later spelled it out for me.

Gorgeous hotel, gorgeous pool, gorgeous beach.

Dinner on the beach both nights, too!

January 17, 2016

Day 15-17: Cycling the Mekong Delta

  1. Fantastic! I don’t have any pictures, because we were mostly on bikes. We flew from Hoi An to Saigon, and then took all local busses to My Tho. So fun to travel like and with the locals! First bus was to the second bus which took is to the bus station. At the bus station, we quickly bought tickets to My Tho, and had a cluster of people making sure we got on the proper bus. It was cozy; I am tall and fat here in Vietnam, so my legs were a bit squished during the ride, by it was less than 2 hours and the scenery was nice.

    We arrived in My Tho, and another group of men waved us to the shade of a nearby bus and peeked at the hotel details on Puja’s phone. And then determined that we each needed a scooter and driver, due to our backpacks.

    Off we went to the hotel, but it wasn’t the right one! The kind hotel owner, knowing that we had already booked, called back our drivers, gave them directions, and sent us on our way. So nice!

    The hotel (save for the German chain smoker in the hallway) was modest but fine.

    We walked around, taking in the sights, chatted with some local folks, saw that kind hotel owner (who gave us a great tip for dinner), and then packed up and went to bed.

    Our driver, Loc, met us the next morning. Could not have had a better experience; kind, friendly, knowledgeable, good rider, good sense of humor.

    We drove to our starting spot, and dispensed with the touristy stuff first: brief cruise, lunch, coconut candy workshop. Nice, but we wanted to ride, so we did!

    Loc has made it his mission to find the backstreets of the Mekong Delta, or as he called them “small roads”. And he delivered; we rode 5.4 mikes on cement, dirt, gravel, stopping for water breaks along the way, because it was HOT!

    When Puja posts her pictures you’ll get a vivid sense of what we experienced. The Mekong is gigantic (it splits into about 8 major branches) and is the freaking fertile crescent of the country. We crossed rivers, streams, creeks, rivulets, channels, springs: water, everywhere, everywhere the mighty Mekong.

    I’m not exaggerating. Growing things included:

    Jack fruit
    Milk apple
    Logan (maybe longan?)

    And we ate most of those, too. Yes to the Jack fruit, no to the Durian.

    But there’s more! We saw bikes, scooters, motorbikes, 9 wedding parties, pigs, boats, junks, irrigation of all sorts, flowers, hat snake, red snapper, frogs, bees, honey (tasted right from the honey comb), and hundreds of hugely enthusiastic kids with wide smiles, all hollering “Hello, hello!”, as we passed by.

    The adults grinned and waved, and we pedaled on.

    And THAT was just the first 5.4 miles.

    We hopped on a small skiff to the next island and did it again – shorter this time, 2.4 miles. Another boat with a clever motor (car motor, motorbike motor, lawnmower motor, you name it, we saw I strapped to a boat somehow).

    Final leg was a 7 miler to an island reminiscent of a rustic summer camp, but perched mostly over water. Cool shower, mosquito net, sleeping pad. But also delish dinner and cold beer.

    My watch ran out of gas for the next day, and when I say it was more of the same I mean that in the best way.

    We crossed big bridges, small bridges, cement bridges, wooden bridges, monkey bridges. Some were steep, some had guardrails (most didn’t).

    We stopped at a small place for fresh fish and a snooze in the hammock to let some of the hot afternoon pass.

    Besides more fruit, vegetable, rice, and more branches of the Mekong, we saw:

    A family of 4 on a scooter
    Water buffalo
    Fish farms in the river
    Dogs galore
    Even more roosters than dogs
    Satellite dish
    Rice wine
    Fishing nets
    A scooter carrying a tea set for 50
    Kids going to school
    A Khmer pagoda
    A Vietnamese soap opera

    To mention a few.

    At the pagoda, Loc gave us a quick history lesson, and then he and I rode over the bridge and into Can Tho, while Puja documented.

    It was fun cycling in traffic in that unstructured way, and we arrived at our hotel at 5pm after 46km plus of riding.

    Loc escorted us to dinner and we walked home along the river, enjoying the lights, set up in advance of the lunar new year.

    We were up at 5am for a short van ride, and then we boarded a tiny boat and cruised to the very local floating market. Watermelon, jackfruit, fish, a women selling hot noodle soup from her boat and more. Gorgeous.

    We pulled over, climbed out, and clambered up a platform overlooking the river where we had hot coffee and a jasmine tea chaser.

    Back to the boat for a trip to see the other floating market, which didn’t impress in the same way – it was more like the Costco supplier floating market.

    But then we took a 45 minute boat tour of some of the small channels to our next cycling spot. It could have been 100 years ago for much of the ride, with little visible sign of modernity.

    Back on the bikes for another crushingly gorgeous island ride, and then a stop for super local and fresh broken rice and cold beer.

    The last bit of the ride was also on small roads. Water everywhere, smiling kids and adults, rice, food – it would be hard to get scurvy here in the Mekong Delta.

    We finished the ride hot, tired and delighted, and Loc took us to our hotel in Saigon.

    Next up: Phu Quoc!

January 16, 2016

Coming Soon: Cycling the Mekong Delta

Unbelievable. So good. Details to follow.

January 14, 2016

Day 14: Getting to My Tho

Fun day today: cab to the airport, local bus to the bus stop, local bus to the bus station, city bus to My Tho, scooter ride to the hotel.

We took a walk and realized that there aren’t many tourists here – lots of friendly, curious looks.

And more coffee shops than I’ve ever seen. That should make tomorrow morning a good start – there is one on both sides of the hotel!

We stopped for a snack in the afternoon, and chatted with a Vietnamese man home visiting his family (he lives in Melbourne). Fun to hear his story of leaving at 17 to try and carve out a better life, just after the fall of Saigon.

He was a firm believer in freedom, and happy about the open-ness in the current Vietnamese government. He said that if the US fell on hard times, people like him would come to our aid.

Very nice to hear! That said – While it was great to hear his story, I’m not yet convinced that our military intervention was in the best interest of anyone.

I’ve been thinking about the Cold War, and a song that was on the folk circuit.

It’s by Dick Gaughan, called “Think Again”.

The lyric I’ve been humming since my visit to My Lai goes like this:

“If we try with all of our power, can we not find a way to peacefully settle our difference??

I think we can. We just have to try with all of our power.

January 12, 2016

Day 13: The beach at Bai Dai

A rest and relaxation day! We took in the hotel breakfast (alas, not as fine as in Hoi An), went for a coffee, and then headed out to Bai Dai beach, about 28km from town.

The cab ride was quick, so we spent 4 hours swimming, sunning, and drinking beer.

We had dinner at Lantern (fantastic), and then hung out until Gary and Iffet had to start their trip back home to Ipswich.

We met them in 2007 in a marvelous coincidence. All of us were traveling in Turkey, and were in an 8 person van, seating 16 or so.

We chatted a bit, and then travelled together to Kas. It was a terrific stroke of good fortune to meet them, so much so that in 2012 we travelled together in Thailand together.

Our time together in Vietnam was terrific: lots of laughter, adventure, great food and company. Sad to see them go. But know that we’ll see them on another trip in the future.

Next up, a 3 day cycling tour of the Mekong Delta!

January 11, 2016

Days 11 and 12: Hoi An and Nha Trang

Our last day in Hoi An was fantastic: It was Puja’s birthday, and I arranged a Seahawks win for her, which we streamed beginning at 5.30a!

We had breakfast at halftime, and just after we started watching, the awesome staff brought up a birthday cake! And sang! And seemed completely delighted that they were helping celebrate. The best part was that they just figured it out from passport dates.

The cake was delish!

We had arranged for a driver to take us to Madam Khan’s, best Banh Mi in Vietnam, which we saved for the airplane ride.

Next up was marble mountain, a fantastic series of pagodas near Danang. We climbed the steps to the top for the view of the city and the beach.

At the airport we realized that we couldn’t take our lunch past security. As we turned upstream, a seemingly gruff security guard looked at our tickets and pointed us back to security.

We showed him our sandwiches, and he turned from gruff to smiley, and waved us to a place to sit!

Nha Trang is a Russian get away – not my favorite. My experience with Russian tourists is less than stellar; both here and in Thailand I’ve seen them pollute, push their way to the front, yell at the lovely people in both countries, slam their cigarette butts into an otherwise pristine beach.

So – we made sure to find dinner in a place without Russian signage! Delish food, cold beer, and our friends Gary and Iffet!

We spent yesterday at the beach. During cab negotiations, our driver was business like. As we got close to the beach, he kept pointing and smiling and giving us the thumbs up sign.

Even though his English was better than our Vietnamese, it tool us a minute to figure out that he would wait for us. And when we asked him his name, he pointed to his taxi number, and then busted out a giant grin when we took his picture next to the car!

Don’t buy the peanuts on the beach if you are hoping for salty/crunchy. Here, they are boiled and soft, more like a baked bean.

Our driver came to find me at 4 to let me know he was there, and we chatted a bit.

We drove home cleaned up, and went and had another fantastic dinner.

I think this vacation thing will catch on.