Jul 30, 2010

Cruisin Hue and The Citadel...

 So, I have a raging headache right now but my boss needs this one written pronto or I sleep in the tub tonight. Anyway, we arrived yesterday in Hue, Vietnam after a brisk 12 hour train ride from Hanoi.

In an effort to burn a few calories and save a few dong (the money in Vietnam), we walked it from the train station into town to find our crash pad for the evening which happened to be the Sports Hotel. Funny thing is, theres nothin sporty about it unless you consider the rat marathon taking place in the walls a sport, but they don't seem to advertise that for some reason.

We took it easy our first night as travel days we've learned basically suck the life outta you and leave you hurtin the next day if you try and venture out immediately without rest.

Day 2 we headed out on wheels. Bike rentals for the day at $2 a pop seemed like a good idea considering the heat and the short distance to the citadel. The citadel, constructed in 1804 was the capital and center of political operations in Vietnam until the last emperor  abdicated to Ho Chi Minh's revolutionary government in1945.

The area was heavily effected by American military strikes but with the exception of some restoration the majority of the complex was seemingly in its original state and quite imporessive. A wall 8 meters high and 2.5 kilometers around surrounded the massive complex that housed dozens of temples, ceremony halls, and the emperors private residence.

We could see a very that the style and feel within the temples was heavily influenced by the Chinese with its use of reds and gold writing.

After our trek through the citadel we grabbed some grub and tooled around for a bit an dgrabbed lunch near the river before heading back for a break from the heat at our hotel and then back out to dinner before a big storm rolled through and gave us a chance to watch some tube. Thats all for now, and my head even feels a bit better so thanks for reading as always. More Hue to come!


Jul 27, 2010

Floating on a Junk

The last 2 days we have spent in HaLong Bay, which is on the NE Coast of Vietnam. We were told sleeping on a junk is a very memorable experience and that we MUST experience. Due to the typhoon in China we had to postpone for a few days…but it was totally worth the wait.

We were picked up at our “travel agency” at 8 am with a mini van and drove about 3 ½ hours to the coast. Along the way we stopped at a factory where they made silk sewing hangings and other souvenirs. Our tour guide explained that the factory was a place where the Vietnamese who were injured during the war worked and that this town was hit pretty bad which made it yet another one of those moments where Ad and I just looked at each other with a blank stare.

After grabbing a sandwich at the shop we drove a bit farther to the harbor in HaLong Bay. We were ushered like cattle with the hundreds of other people who were awaiting a trip on their junk into smaller boats that taxied us to our boat. Our Junk was called the Oriental Sails. All of the boats are pretty new but are built to look like old fashioned boats.

At this point, our vacation began to change. We started to talk with everyone on board and realized just how lucky we are to be traveling to be meeting people from so many places around the world and every one of them has been nothing but smiles and genuinely wonderful to meet. (ill explain more in a bit)

We spent the afternoon touring around the “amazing cave” and kayaking as well as eating a fantastic dinner and a bottle of wine. After dinner, all of us sat on the roof of our boat and chatted until after midnight.
We were accompanied by a couple from the Philippines who are travel writers and super sweet, a couple from Malaysia (Kuala Lumpor - who took the photo above)) who have us convinced that we will be stopping by to see the city on our way to Singapore and who will gladly show us around. We had dinner with two university students from Switzerland who were hysterical boys who also said they would host us and take us for Fondue when we go to Europe. We spent time chatting with two German friends who have now given us a great idea to save money in Europe, renting a camper or RV and driving our selves around the country giving us lodging and a kitchen…which will definitely save on the bank. We also spoke with a lovely couple from France (who when she says France it sounds like music) who live in Bordeaux and their children are all grown…they invited us to stay with them for a few nights, drink red wine and enjoy their city.

The next day, we had breakfast and separated from the group since we were here for 3 days not 2 like them and boarded a day boat where we spent the day with a couple, he from the Netherlands and she from Germany. They were so much fun. The four of us spent the day on the beach, building a sand city, swimming in the Bay, kayaking through caves and laughing so much. We spotted a giant jelly fish and that ended our swimming.

They were a blast and we hope in the next two weeks to meet up with them again in the South of Vietnam.

When we got back to our main boat we got ready for dinner and spent the evening with new friends. A father and son from the Netherlands were our entertainment and conversation buddies for the evening along with a couple from Australia. We spent the night talking about how similar and also different from movies like American Pie and the Hangover to the son and the dad talked with us about Harley Davidsons, the military conspiracies and our dogs (they have a long haired Jack Russell )

Our three days here on the Oriental Sails has not only shown us a most beautiful Bay full of mini mountains popping out of the water (The story is that a dragon spit pearls at the enemy and each pearl became a landform – 1,969 of them) We visited the floating village of Ca Van and saw how they squid fish and survive storms by building their village close to the landforms for protection.

We also met such wonderful people and have so many more places and people now to visit in the next few months. I think we needed this experience. I believe that this was one of those eye opening moments to all of the wonderful people on this earth who are full of light and enjoy meeting people and having the basics of conversation turn into such wonderful experiences and friendships. All of this was in just 3 days, I can not wait to see what the rest of this trip will bring to us.

Hill People - Sapa

The second day of our Sapa tour started with a pretty hefty shower which was actually welcomed by both of us as we had the good fortune of buying raincoats the night before just as a precaution which was in retrospect a fantastic move. Not to mention that the coats are pretty spot-on North Face knock offs although Nicole disagrees that they are fake but for $25, they keep us dry.

Anyways, so we started the day with breakfast and then met with our guide to begin the trek through the valley of rice fields and the hill tribe of Tanvan.

The walk was really nice in the wet as it was cooler and in a way it felt more authentic among all the fog and dirt paths that wind their way in and out of the valley decorated with small homes, farms, and the occasional water buffalo. The valley itself, is a mass of rolling rice fields that jump up and down the entire vibrant green landscape that is often blanketed with clouds that sets off the surreal feel of the location.

As is not uncommon, we attracted some local followers that lent us a hand through some of the more tricky spots on the trek. Nicole had a young girl with her the entire way that even waited for us to eat lunch and then continued along with us the rest of the way. The walk took us through some rather difficult and slippery terrain that had us relying heavily on the superhuman strength of our local help to keep up from spilling down the countryside. On one particular stretch we came across a few young boys that wanted nothing less than to see us face down in the dirt and so as we walked to an obvious "god I hope they fall" chant, we smiled and took each step in stride as our shoes were totally immersed in the mud.  Now the thing is, Nicole and I both knew that although sweet of the locals to help us out, there are certainly “no free lunches” as they say in Vietnam and when we reached the end of the trail, the women patiently awaited a reward which although a semi smudge on the fantastic walk, I can still understand and accept as it is something that goes on daily.

Just a personal thought on the matter. As we travel through some of the areas that have been takin over as tourist destinations, both Nicole and I can’t help but feel saddened by the idea that beautiful tribes people that were at one time very removed from the grip of capitalism have been poisoned in a way. From the moment you arrive (and they know you have arrived), the young and old tribes women circle your van and try and sell you their crafts with a persistence that spoils the encounter. As I mentioned before, it’s an understandable occurrence especially as the government is somewhat to blame for the allowance of tourism to spread into certain areas and just the idea of Nicole and I being there perpetuates the cycle. I just hope that these people can still find a way to hold on to the history and beliefs that their society has been built upon without totally handing it over to the tourists.

Ok, so back to it. After a final decent through some thick bamboo that doubled as support, our hike ended at about 4 which gave us time to pick up some dinner and then bus it back to the train station for our 8 hour overnight cruise back to Hanoi in time to make our 8am connection to our Halong Bay trip.

Something very retro about an overnight sleeper in my opinion but they make sense as they’ve given us our lodging and transport all in one steel rig on rails!

Thanks for reading, Halong Bay is next!!

Jul 23, 2010

Cat Cat Village

Today we went on a trek, or hike with May Linh who had to have been the sweetest Vietnamese person I have met. She helped clear up a lot of our questions and really by the end of the day I had a new girlfriend. 
Sapa was originally built in 1922 by the French and is now still a busy mountain town. There are many hill tribe people that live here, I believe May Linh said that there were 6 different kinds.

We entered into the Cat Cat village where we walked around and saw the villagers and learned about their hemp weaving, the indigo dying and the herbal medicine.  The government opened the village for the tourists hoping to help them financially. At first, the villagers were not happy about it, but now it is okay and normal for them to see. The kids try to sell you everything and it is so hard to tell them no. May Linh also told us that the Vietnamese love to eat dog (which we saw plenty of, along with pigs walking down the road)

May Linh was a lighter skinned most beautiful 20 year old girl who told us the story about the love market and how her people either have arranged marriages or are kidnapped for three days by a man who likes them. They know that they are liked because they play music to each other. It was a fun story. The reason why I mentioned she was lighter skin was because some of the other Vietnamese people made fun of her and I wanted to knock them out.
Anyway, as we walked there was also a herd of water buffalo swimming in the stream near the boys who use them to plow their land. 

I asked May Linh about Vietnamese’s opinion towards Americans and if we stuck out with our accent. She said that they know we speak English but they don’t know enough to know that we are from America. She said that they think all American’s are rich (I told her how untrue it is, but compared to their life, possibly we seem it) She said that some people still have an opinion about the war, but it is the same with the French from before and the Chinese. But most people, do not think about it anymore.

We also saw a beautiful waterfall which the French had used for hydroelectric power.
The scenery was absolutely beautiful. The weather wasn’t awfully hot…and it was just a perfect afternoon. Keep an eye out for pictures on the right, but we do not have internet in our room and it takes a long time to upload them all.

SP7 - train

Well, we are in our hotel room in Sapa…after a very long journey. We arrived at the train station at around 7:30 last night and traded in our vouchers for tickets then walked the streets looking for dinner. We found a little family place on the side of the road, grandma scoops the food, granddad pops the beer and mom serves you. You point to different food in the glass and they serve you. We ordered some sort of beef, spinach and the customary spring rolls, and two beers. Our meal was about $6.00 total for the two of us, very good…a bit oily but yummy!

When we went back to the train yard for our 8:30 train it was like we stepped back in time. There were at least 5 rows of old train cars. As we walked towards the back (we were in cabin 9) the seats (well beds) got a bit older and darker with less bottles of water and snacks on the tables.
When we reached our cabin it was full of the locals which meant we knew we had the last beds available on the train, and we were in for an experience. When we entered our “cabin” I took the top bunk and Ad stayed on the bottom. There was a Vietnamese woman with her two children 5 and 3 years old. I took out my handy dandy crayons that I carried with me for them to draw. In my mind, the kids were sleeping on the bottom and mom on the top. But then, just before the train left, a 7 ft. tall Danish young man walked in and he had paid for the top bunk. So there were 6 of us in the cabin. It was fun for awhile and we chatted until the kids passed out, then I did the same.

We were awakened at 4 this morning when the mother and her kids got off the train and then again at 5:30 when we reached Lao Cai. In Lao Cai, we were met with a sign and put on a bus with 20 or so other travelers.
 I will say the ride up the mountains was amazing. We are so high above the clouds. We saw water buffalo plowing the fields, and dogs in their cages going for rides on the back of motorbikes. We were dumped at our hotel which then wanted us to wait 8 hours before checking in. Adam spoke up and like my superman, had us in a room in 3. So, now, we are about to freshen up and at 2 meet our guide for a trek through the mountains. 

There is much to write about our experiences and feelings about the people and culture, but I will save it for another time. We are both confused as to if we are wrong to expect things out of people and places or if our expectations are too high. We are also debating, constantly, the beautiful cultures that are hidden here in the remote areas, but have succumbed to basically chasing you down the hills asking you to buy things, not even able to smile without people thinking you are going to invest in whatever they are carrying. I don’t understand my own feelings and observations at this point and I know Adam is still working through his too.
We will share more later.

Jul 22, 2010

Hanoi to HaLong

Yesterday we hopped in a cab and went to the Ho Chi Minh museum and the museum of ethnology. We were not allowed inside of the mosuleum that held Ho Chi Minh's mummy because I had a tank top on, but we went into the museum of his life.
Adam and I have to admit that we are very ignorant when it comes to this. We did not do any research before hand and only had in our heads what we thought we knew of the vietnam war. Although this museum did not focus on the war at all, only about his life, the sequence and definite honor this country instills in Uncle Ho as they call him, had us asking more questions when we left.
The museum talked about how he worked all around the world and befriended many different nations. He was jailed by the Chinese but then spent a lot of time with the Russians and Germans. Then, repeatedly, his quote about making the north and the south of vietnam united, peaceful and a place for all vietnamese was reapeated.
When we got back to the hotel we did a bit more research on both him and the war and are now officially even more confused as to what is truth and what is the opinions of each nation.

The museum of Ethnology was pretty neat. They had it set up where each part of the museum was a different tribe of people here in vietnam. It had  clothing, artifacts and real huts from each region that we could explore. Including this group of people who were very into their recreation.

Last night we went out for a great dinner and walk around the big lake.
Our hotel stay here at the Gecko has not been too pleasant. The hotel came greatly reviewed by others but honestly...not so great for us. The service is ok...when we asked for more toilet paper they said they had to inspect our room first. We were right above the lobby and heard everything...all night and as soon as the sun rose. There were a few other "not so great" experiences that will make this one hotel that we won't recommend to others.
However, today, in about 45 minutes we are heading on a tour to HaLong Bay to spend the night on a junk (an old ship) and then a second night in Cat Ba island. So, we may be out of touch for a few days...but I imagine the pictures to share later will be incredible!
Talk to you soon!

PS. detour in our plans due to a Typhoon in Hong Kong. We are heading tonight on an evening train to the NW to Sapa for 3 days of trekking through the mountains and villages. Then, we will head E to HaLong for the Orient Sail junk for our next 3 days...as long as the weather permits that is.

Jul 20, 2010

good morning, Vietnam!

Literally, this morning, we touched down in Hanoi around 8:30 am and after getting our very cool visas, headed to our hotel in the heart of the old quarter. Immediately we began to see differences in neighboring Thailand (kind of neighboring) The architecture here is very New Orleans, french style, and very colorful. The buildings, some so old or in ruins, others just the face is fixed up and still others are brand new.
There are motobikes EVERYWHERE and they drive on the right side of the road. The landscape is more tropical and guess what, they do wear those pointy rice hats.

We checked into the hotel and fell asleep for a few hours (the 3 am alarm caught up to us) then we  put on our walking shoes and hit the streets.
The people here are less aggressive in selling things to you, the silk and kitchenware are so beautiful...If we were going straight home I would have dishes bought already.

We were lucky enough to stumble on roadside barbers and Adam had a full on barber hair cut and face shave. It took the man about an hour and I sat there, wrote postcards and smiled at the dedication of this professional barber.

We discovered a very pretty lake in the middle of the city and are now back in our room resting up before getting dinner and heading to bed early. Tomorrow we are going to hopefully see the Ho Chi Minh Mummy and the museum.

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