Thursday, December 31, 2009
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
I have already received my China visa, but the school where I will be working doesn't want me to go to Shanghai until January 9th, which means I'll be in Hong Kong for another week. I guess there are worse places to be "stuck". I'll have plenty of time to practice some of my Mandarin phrases on the locals.
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Sunday, December 27, 2009
Sunday, December 20, 2009
Saturday, December 19, 2009
I lucked out on a 15-dollar tour that took me to a flower farm, a coffee plantation, a silk factory, a rice wine distillery, a pagoda with a very happy Buddha, a beatiful waterfall, & an old French train station. I took tons of photos of it all.
The next day I decided to go exploring on my own. I walked & walked around the town. I saw the famous flower gardens, Crazy House, Bao Dai's summer palace, a Catholic church in the shape of a Buddhist pagoda, some more waterfalls (though these were under renovation), & the central market where they were selling all kinds of dried & fresh fruits. At the end of the day, I sipped a Saigon Beer as I watched the people go by.
I briefly considered staying another day, but it was time to go back to Bien Hoa (my home base in Vietnam) & regroup before meeting my brother & sister-in-law in Saigon on the 22nd.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
I took an overnight sleeper bus from Hoi An, arriving in Nha Trang at 6:00am. I quickly found a hotel room for $5 a night - the cheapest one yet! I left my backpack in the room & headed for the beach.
There was no one there. Of course, it was a Monday & it was early in the morning, so maybe all the beach goers were still snug in their beds. I looked in the guidebook & found out that there were some Cham ruins not far from the center of town. These were the same people who built My Son in Hoi An, where I had just been. I decided to rent a bicycle & check them out.
Sunday, December 13, 2009
My Son, a complex of Cham ruins about an hour away from town. During the bus ride to the site, our guide told us that his father was a member of the Viet Cong who had died on the front lines during the Vietnam War. Then he went on to explain that many of the structures at My Son had been destroyed by US bombing. "Why? Wrong information! Any Americans in the group?" No one answered.
As we toured the complex, our guide explained the unsual construction methods used by the Cham people, & pointed out that many of the statues there were missing their heads. "Why? Because the French wanted them for their museums! Any French in the group?" No one answered.
We all hung our heads in shame as we returned to the bus which would take us back to town.
Next stop: Nha Trang.
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
People come to Hue to see the Citadel, so that's where I went. 55,000 dong (about $3) got me through the gates. It was a huge complex with lots of old buildings in various states of disrepair, with no visible explanations. The grounds were beautiful, but I'm sure I missed out on the significance of the site because I'm not very familiar with Vietnamese history.
Mandarin Cafe where the owner Mr. Cu displays his wonderful photos of Vietnamese life, & offers postcards of the images for sale. I leafed through his photo album while eating a tasty meal & sipping the local brew: Huda.
I decided that one day was enough in Hue, so I booked a bus ticket to Hoi An for the following morning.
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
We drove a couple of hours from Hanoi out to the countryside where I was greeted by several people that I had met before at the wedding in October & at the death anniversary celebration in November. They warmly welcomed me, offering me bitter tea & making room for me on the sofa. No one spoke English, & of course I speak very little Vietnamese, so our conversation was full of silly gestures & facial expressions. We were all happy to see each other again.
Then the food started coming - plates & plates of it. People came & went all day long, eating mass amounts of food that was constantly being prepared. More chickens were killed, & a few ducks too. Mounds of vegetables were washed, cut & boiled.
Friday, December 4, 2009
I found a hotel for $6 & asked about trekking tours. Luckily, they had a tour that was leaving at 9:30am. I had time for breakfast & coffee before I met the tour guide. Nine of us hiked an 8-mile loop through the villages in the valley. The scenery became more & more beautiful as we decended the trail & the mist lifted. By lunchtime, the sun was shining, warming us up quite a bit.
We were followed the whole way by several minority tribe women carrying handicrafts for sale. Some of them were carrying babies strapped to their backs as well, swaddled in brightly colored fabrics. Many of the women wore flip flops as we trudged up rocky slopes & through the slippery mud. I of course had on my trusty hiking shoes, one of the marks of a true tourist.
When we finally reached the end of the trail, the tribal women began hawking their wares: "You buy from me! I follow you all day!" One of the members of our tour group kept buying & buying until the women were satisfied & bade us a fond farewell.
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
I also visited the tomb of Uncle Ho himself. It was a very serious affair. I waited with scores of other visitors as security guards scanned our bags, removing cameras & cell phones before we entered the mausoleum. We were then filed straight to the door, which was flanked by two soldiers carrying bayonettes. I had visions of being skewered as I walked up the red carpet, but thankfully made it inside without incident. More soldiers inside the tomb kept the line moving slowly but steadily past the body, which was displayed in a glass case with lighting reminiscent of Madame Tussauds, surrounded on four points with more bayonette-wielding guards. I had all of thirty seconds to decide if this was the real Ho Chi Minh. The jury is still out.
In the afternoon I walked to the train station where I bought an overnight ticket to Sapa, my next stop.
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Once on the island, we investigated things to do. We found Slo Pony, a local rock climbing guide company. Unfortunately we didn't have enough time to book a climbing trip with them. It was way too cold to be thinking about dropping into the water after a route anyway. I bet it's awesome in the summer time - all those big tall rock formations jutting out of the water seem to scream out "CLIMB ME!"
Even though we weren't going climbing with them, the folks at Slo Pony gave us some useful advice on other things to do on the island. Since we really only had one full day for sight seeing, they suggested we rent a motorbike & drive around the island. We found a scooter for about $5 for the day including gas. Nice.
Neither of us had ever driven a motorbike, so at the toss of a coin, I ended up in front. After a few false starts, we were off! We spent all day driving around the island, stopping here & there to explore. It was so beautiful - Cat Ba Island is definitely one of the gems of Vietnam.
We both wished we had more time to spend here, but Michael was scheduled to fly back to the US on the 1st, so we reluctantly packed up & took the boat back to the mainland. Maybe I'll be back one day. If so, I'll bring my climbing gear.
Sunday, November 29, 2009
Now, if you've never seen a Vietnamese water puppet show, you really haven't seen Vietnam - at least that's what the brochure says. The puppeteers stand behind a bamboo screen in a pool of water, manipulating wooden puppets to tell the story of kings, dragons & rice growers. It's campy, but I loved it anyway. It was great entertainment for two bucks.
Saturday, November 28, 2009
The first day we found a cheap all-day tour of the Mekong Delta - $10 per person, including lunch. The pamphlet promised they would take us to a bee farm, a coconut candy factory, & a rice paper factory. It also said we would have a traditional Vietnamese lunch, & sip tea while listening to a performance of traditional Vietnamese music. It sounded great, so we signed up.
Indeed we did see all of the promised attractions - but still the tour was below par. Instead of explaining the process of honey production at the bee farm, they just dropped us off & directed us to sit at some tables where they served us tea. Then they tried to sell us jars of honey products. A similar thing happened at the next stop, the coconut candy factory, & again at the third stop. I felt like I was on a shopping spree instead of a tour of the delta region. I can say, though, that the tour was worth just about ten bucks. I guess you get what you pay for.
The second day we walked around the city on our own. I took Micheal to see all the usual sites: Reunification Palace, the War Remnants Museum, Notre Dame Cathedral, the main post office, the opera house, the market - & we took photos of them all.
After two days of Saigon, we were both ready to move on. Our next stop: Hanoi.
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
For my first stop, my friend Michael I. from Arizona met me in Siem Reap, Cambodia where we toured the ruins of Angkor Wat. These ruins were massive, beautiful, amazing. I dare to say they are the best ruins I've seen, which includes Teotihuacan in Mexico City & Machu Picchu in Peru. We got tons of photos of the crumbled structures from every angle, from far away & zoomed in close. But the two dimensional images just don't reveal the depth of the sights, the sounds, the awe of it all.
I was surprised to find that US dollars were used everywhere: at the hotel, at the entrance to the ruins, in the restaurants, at the market - everything was in US dollars. When I tried to use Cambodian riels it actually threw them for a loop. They looked bewildered, even slightly annoyed. I wonder if US dollars are used throughout the country or it it's just that way in Siem Reap because of all the tourists.
With the days ruined, so to speak, we spent the evenings in the backpacker area of Siem Reap, swilling Angkor beer & watching the people go by. There was a slight chill in the air, a welcome change from the sticky heat of south Vietnam. What a great way to start the trip.
Saturday, November 21, 2009
I'm flying to Siem Reap, Cambodia this afternoon to meet my friend Michael I. We're going to spend a few days at Angkor Wat, the famous ruins. I can't wait to take tons of photos :)
Thursday, November 19, 2009
All week my students have been taking me out for coffee or dinner, & giving me Vietnamese souvenirs. It really makes me feel good to know that my students appreciate me, even though I've only been here a short time.
One of my favorite gifts is the ubiquitous conical hat. Now, how am I going to fit that in my suitcase?
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
He has always treated me well, not only doing my laundry, but also making minor adjustments to my bicycle for free, & sending me home with freshly made soy milk. He charges me 20,000 Dong (=$1.11) per kilo, which is actually double the normal price, but I can afford it & he sometimes gives me discounts. I once left some clothing with his wife to be altered, shortened or lengthened. For all four garments, she charged me 17,000 dong (=$0.94).
In my rudamentary Vietnamese, I told them that I would be leaving Bien Hoa this weekend to go to China for a year, & that I wanted to take a photo to show to all my friends at home. The laundry guy quickly skipped to the back of the shop, too shy to pose. In the photo above, his wife rests on her trusty sewing machine, surrounded by the week's work.
Monday, November 16, 2009
Sunday, November 15, 2009
So there I was at 4:00. We hopped on her motorbike (aka: scooter) & were off. We stopped at the market & bought huge bags full of noodles & fruit. I started to realize that something big was about to happen. A little further down the road, I began to recognize our surroundings, & soon we pulled up in front of the same house where the wedding took place last month. All the usual suspects were there - it was a party!
I still had no idea what the occasion was, but was happy to see everyone again. They all welcomed me warmly & invited me to sit down. We gathered around long tables covered in plates of food, the women & children at one table sipping sodas, the men at another swilling beer.
Finally, one of the cousins who speaks very good English explained that this was a celebration for her grandfather who died four years ago, though the gathering was anything but somber. Everyone was laughing & boisterous. Yay for Granddad!
When the party dwindled to about 15 people, I was invited to the beer table & encouraged to drink lots & lots of beer. We all tossed our empty cans under the table, & clincked our glasses together as we yelled: "một, hai, ba, yo!" (1, 2, 3, yo!)
Friday, November 13, 2009
She is from a small village near the Cambodian border where her family has a farm. She's the ninth child of twelve, but the only one who has left her village. She's now 23 years old. In Bien Hoa she works for a Korean company that contracts with Nike. She speaks English at work, the common language between her & her managers. Lucky for me that her English is so good.
One of the difficult things about traveling is that you have to say goodbye to so many wonderful people. It must also be difficult for Vietnamese people to make friends with foreigners since they don't tend to stay in one place for very long. But Tram is pretty adventurous. Maybe I will meet her again someday in another place, at another time.
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
When she found out that I would be leaving Bien Hoa for China, she expressed that she would miss me, & decided that I should have lunch with her every day until I go. Yesterday I went with her, her daughter, & some of her daughter's friends to the supermarket where we posed for several cute photos at the photo booth there.
Miss Hang is from Hanoi, like many of the Vietnamese people living here in Bien Hoa. She is planning to visit her family there in December. We figured out that we will both be in Hanoi at the same time, & made plans to meet again there. She has been a good friend, & I'm glad for the chance to see her hometown with her before I leave Vietnam for good.
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Monday, November 9, 2009
First, I'll spend about ten days with my friend Michael I. He'll be leaving from Hanoi, in the northern part of Vietnam, & then I'll have about three weeks to make my way down south to Ho Chi Minh City, where I will meet my brother & sister-in-law. Since Vietnam is a long, thin country, it'll be easy to just take the road south, stopping along the way at various interesting cities.
I've considered taking the train all the way. I love the train. There's a certain romantic element to it: you can watch the countryside go by, meet interesting people, listen to the clack-clack of the train's wheels as they go over the tracks. But people tell me that most train stations are outside the cities & towns that they service, so it might be inconvenient.
I've also considered taking an open tour bus. You can buy a ticket from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City for about $60. Then you can get on & off the bus wherever you want, whenever you want.
But I talked with one tour agent who said that the open tour bus might not be the best way to go. You don't have priority over other travelers, so you might not get back on the bus exactly when you want. Plus, you have to choose your destinations & the order in which you will stop at them when you buy the ticket, which doesn't allow for flexibility once you're on the road.
Instead, the tour agent recommended that I buy a ticket for each leg as I'm ready to go to the next place. It'll cost a few extra dollars, but he says it's worth it for the freedom you gain. Since both the train & the bus offer sleepers, I can travel either way, depending on my needs that day.
I think I will take his advice. I'll be posting about how it turns out.
Saturday, November 7, 2009
Thursday, November 5, 2009
It has been quite an experience! I've learned a lot about living in Vietnam, & about myself. Most importantly, I learned first-hand what culture shock is & how I react to it. I'm forever grateful for the opportunity to live here.
- [Nov 20-Dec 1] Travel with Michael I. to Angkor Wat, Saigon, & Hanoi
- [Dec 2-Dec 21] Travel solo from Hanoi to Saigon, stopping along the way for a few days at a time
- [Dec 22-27] See the sights in & around Saigon with my brother & sister-in-law
- [Jan 2010] Move to Shanghai, China to start my new job teaching English there
I'm so excited to start the next stage of my journey!
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
I'm looking forward to it. I've never done any formal teacher training before, so it will be a good experience for me. I'm hoping to do more of this kind of thing in the future.