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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Stuck in Hong Kong

I have been writing the last several posts from a cozy little hotel room in Hong Kong. I came here to apply for my entry visa to China in anticipation of my move to Shanghai where I will start a new job teaching English.

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

Getting a Visa for China

Of course, the whole reason I came to Hong Kong was to apply for my entry visa to China. On Monday I went to the visa office where there was a long line of people hoping to get their own China visas.

After about an hour in line, I finally was allowed inside the visa office where I took a number & sat down. It was like waiting at the MVD: there were people there from all walks of life, some talking on their cellphones, some reading the newspaper, some just staring off into space. Good thing I brought a book.

Three hours later, I was called to a window where a woman took my paperwork, stamped several pieces of paper, gave me a receipt, & told me to come back the next day. Hm. I had heard that it would take 3-5 business days to process my visa.

On Tuesday, I went back to the visa office. The line was much shorter this time. Once in the office I was able to go straight to the collection counter. I paid HK$1200 (about US$160), & they handed me my passport with the visa inside. Ta-da!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Backtracking in Hong Kong

I flew to Hong Kong today from Ho Chi Minh City. I'm here to apply for my visa for China. As soon as I get the visa, I will fly to Shanghai to start my new job teaching English there. While I wait for the visa paperwork to process, I'll have some time to write about my travels over the last month, starting with Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

See You Later, Vietnam!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Touching Base: Bien Hoa

I'm now in Bien Hoa for a couple of days, back where I started a month ago, uploading photos & doing laundry. But my travels are not over yet. After spending the holidays with my brother & sister-in-law in Saigon, I'll fly to Hong Kong to apply for my visa for China. Hong Kong ranked as the 9th most expensive city on Mercer's Cost of Living survey. I'm bracing myself for the sticker shock after being in Vietnam for so long, where a $5 taxi ride makes me gasp.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Dec 17-19: Dalat

I loved Dalat. It's famous for its cool climate, making it a perfect spot to grow flowers & fruit. I had been hearing from my students that people go to Dalat mainly to get out of the heat of Saigon, so I was surprised to find that there was so much to see & do there.

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

Dec 14-16: Nha Trang

I had been hearing about Nha Trang ever since I arrived in Vietnam in June. All of my students kept saying it was the best beach in Vietnam. Now I finally had the opportunity to see what all the fuss was about.

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.

Po Nagar was an interesting site, well worth the 11,000 dong entrance fee (about 60 cents). The ruins have obviously been well-taken care of - rebuilt & cleaned up. It was like being in an outdoor museum. The temples are still used today as worship sites. When I ducked inside, people were crowded around altars to Shiva, a hindu god, burning incense & muttering prayers.

On my way back to town, I stopped at the Long Son Pagoda, which was at the top of a long stone staircase. At the top, I found the pagoda & several large statues of Buddha, as well as a cemetery full of stacked crypts. Very cool. Back at the bottom of the hill, I had lunch at the vegetarian cafe there, which served your standard Buddhist grub: fake meats & rice dishes for a few pennies.

The next day, I took a boat tour of the islands off the coastline. At our first stop, several of us dove into the water while others went for parasail rides. I was just putting on my mask & snorkle when I felt a slight sting - & then another. I looked down into the water: jellyfish. I wound up with a rash of little red bumps all over my body that itched like the worst mosquito bites for days & days.

After that, I was ready to spend an entire day lazing on the beach, doing nothing but reading & listening to the waves roll over the sand.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Dec 10-13: Hoi An

Hoi An is a cute little town. Since it was in the area considered as the demilitarized zone during the Vietnam War, many of its buildings were spared from destruction. Especially in the older section of town, you can still see wonderful examples of traditional Vietnamese architecture. These days the old buildings have been converted to tailor shops & lantern sellers, restaurants & bars. It's a great place to spend the afternoon people watching.

One day, I took a tour to 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.

When we got to the main gate of the complex, they took us the rest of the way to the ruins in US military jeeps. Our guide said that indeed these were authentic war-time vehicles that the Americans left as they were fleeing the country - Ha! Any Americans in the group?

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.

Back at the hotel, I looked in the guidebook for something to do the following day. I noticed that there was a strip of beach not far from town, so the next day I checked out a bicycle from the hotel & rode out to see what it was like. It was beautiful - white sand, gentle waves, & not too many people. I spent the whole day there, lounging under a palapa & reading a book. Aah.

Next stop: Nha Trang.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Dec 9: Hue

I took the night train from Hanoi to Hue in the central part of Vietnam - a 14-hour journey - arriving at 10:00am. I shared a taxi with my cabin mates from the train to a hotel that was mentioned in the Lonely Planet. Got a decent room for $10.

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.

Afterwards, I walked down a back street, away from the tourist route, through Vietnamese life. It made me think about how when you're traveling, you get to see lots of interesting places in a short period of time. You can take lots of photos, go home & show them to your friends as you narrate your wonderful trip. But life - real life - goes on long after you've gone, in spite of your being there - & because of it.

In the evening, I came across the 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.

In Hue

I'm currently in Hue, Vietnam - checking email & trying without success to find an internet cafe that supports Skype. I miss my laptop! Wish I had a mini laptop to travel with. Also having problems accessing Facebook - the rumors of a country-wide block must be true.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Dec 5-8: A Weekend with Miss Hang

Miss Hang, one of my Vietnamese friends in Bien Hoa is from Hanoi, & was in town visiting her family while I was in the area, so she invited me to her family's house for the weekend.

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.

It was getting late, so I was shown into a large room where there were five huge wooden beds draped with mosquito nets. The whole family (about 15 adults & children) slept in the same room, two or three people to each bed - Miss Hang shared hers with me.

The next morning I woke up at 6:00am. I had just enough time to take the above photo before the house came to life. Everyone started bustling around, sweeping the courtyard, making tea, killing chickens. It was a beehive of activity. I didn't suspect anything unusual until people started arriving on motorbikes heaped with folding tables & plastic chairs. Something big was about to happen.

Soon, some people I had never seen before (presumably neighbors) showed up, & we all sat around the folding tables in the courtyard drinking bitter tea together. These were traditional country folk. Many of the older women were chewing betel, their teeth dyed black, their lips bright red from the betel juice. The men smoked strong tobacco from a traditional ceramic bowl.

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.

I still didn't know what the fuss was all about, but the family members had tied white scarves around their heads, leading me to believe this was some sort of death celebration. "Celebration" is definitely the correct word here. Everyone was laughing & boisterous; it was a joyous occasion.

In the afternoon I got a better idea of what was going on. Miss Hang took me out to the fields behind the house where there were four or five tombs. To the right were several curious mounds of dirt grown over with vegetation. A couple of the brothers were there with shovels in their hands. It turned out that the patriarch of the family, whose death we celebrated in November, was buried under one of the mounds, & they were going to dig him up & put him in his final resting place, one of the tombs to the left.

The women burned incense & paper offerings over the mound, & at exactly 2:07pm, the men started digging. The women wailed as if they were themselves dying, as the dirt was removed clump by clump. I stayed off to the side watching for about 20 minutes before Miss Hang said it was time to go back to the house. I was disappointed not to be able to see the whole thing happen.

Back at the house, more food, more bitter tea... & soon the rice wine started flowing. "Một, hai, ba, YO!" We spent all evening drinking & eating, celebrating Grandpa. When I finally went to bed, the party was still going strong, & continued at a low rumble throughout the night. I awoke at 2:00am to strange chopping sounds & groggily went to investigate. Turns out they had killed a pig & were dismembering it. I went back to bed.

The next morning it was time for me to leave. A couple of friends of the family were going back to Hanoi & offered to take me with them. This was the last time I'll see Miss Hang. Our goodbye was hurried & without ceremony, as is her character.

(NOTE: Because of the language barrier, I can only make guesses based on observations. I have searched online for an explanation of this tradition, but haven't been able to find anything. If you know more about it, please post a comment!)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Dec 3-4: Sapa

I took the night train from Hanoi to Sapa, the coldest town in Vietnam. The train arrived in Lao Cai, the end of the line, at 5:00am & I took a minibus to town along with a slew of other tourists. By the time we arrived in Sapa, the sun was up, though there was a heavy mist hanging low over the mountains. Brr! It was cold!

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

Dec 1-2: Hanoi, Part 2

After a spending ten days traveling around with me, Michael flew back to the US, so I was left to my own devices. I decided to take a walk to the Temple of Literature. For 10,000 dong (about 50 cents) I was able to tour the grounds that were once a Confusius-minded think tank. Most of what was there has been rebuilt in the last 50 years (you might have heard that Vietnam has been through a few wars recently), but that didn't detract from the beauty of the place. The compound was made up of several traditional Chinese style structures amid still ponds, lotus flowers blooming over curious coy fish. Despite the many visitors milling around, the atmosphere was serene.

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

Nov 29-Dec 1: Halong Bay

From Hanoi, Michael & I took a bus to Hai Phong on the coast where we boarded a boat that would take us to Cat Ba Island. We sailed through the beautiful crags of Halong Bay, the quintessential image of Vietnam. I was awestruck.

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.