June 27, 2010

goodbye lonely planet

the hotel in Sapa makes me an early breakfast and walks me up to the car [there is road construction so there is not access to the hotel] they arranged to take me to the Vietnam border at Lao Cai. the border crossing is easy enough then the fun starts. i find the bus station but no chance they are taking dollars or want my leftover Vietnamese dong. no bank or atm that i can identify and i end up getting my fresh cash from a black marketer on the street corner. we haggle a bit and i know it isn't a good rate but i need 143 yuan FAST to get back to the station for the bus to Kunming or i will be waiting 4 hours for the next bus in a very hot, very dirty bus station.

this is a rarely used border crossing for westerners so i am thrilled to see a western couple and then i am approached by a girl from Taiwan who speaks mandarin. BINGO this is like hitting the lottery so i know all those extra prayers mom is says must be working. or maybe it's the lucky coin i got from the fortune teller. or the blessing from the shaman. or is it?

the bus makes a toilet stop and it is like nothing i have seen or smelt since i have been in SE Asia. i see this billboard and think i have seen nothing to indicate that todlers or even adults here use any type of container to relieve themselves.   you would think that i would be used to bad toilets by now but this is a whole new level. also, the girl next to me on the bus is vomiting alot but that i have become used to that for the most part.

during one of the bus stops [it is an 9 hour ride] the Taiwanese girl asks me if i know of a cheap hostel in Kunming. i am thinking that she wants to stay there so i say the other westerners have a good recommendation for a $3US hostel. she asks if i will follow them and i say no. then she says she is very concerned about my traveling without any of the local language because no one will speak English to me. i tell her i have been traveling for months and i am sure i will get by.
later sitting alone on the bus with my ipod the doubt starts to set in. my first day in china. what if i can't make anyone understand me? what if i can't find a hotel? what if something happens that i am not prepared for? what if there is a danger my mind can not even think of? what if? what if? when i get into Kunming i get around with zero problem. i am so pissed at myself. it makes me want to cry that i let some random traveler project her fears onto me after all this time.  i vow to never let this happen again whether i am traveling or not.
the ride from the border to Kunming takes us through the Stone Forest.  created 60 million years ago when the Himalayas shrugged, the 'forest' resembles a vast ghostly city looming out of the landscape. 

last stop vietnam

really rough morning. arrived at the train station with no warning at 4:30AM. touts banging on our door trying to sell us minivan tickets into Sapa. by the time we get into a hotel in Sapa it is 7AM.  i get online and several people skype me as i have been out of touch for about a week.  i am in a really bad mood.  i am in a remote area of Vietnam with only 3 days left on my visa and no good plan on how to get overland through China to Hong Kong in the time frame i need for my return flight to the US. i am very cranky that i have to leave and i warn everyone i am talking to of my bad mood.

Sapa is postcard beautiful. a lush valley surrounded by slopes of tiered rice paddies and small villages of ethnic minority hill tribes with rich cultural traditions completely different from the Vietnamese.

 it is an oasis in the chaos that is Vietnam and made even better because i spend a few days with a really great couple from Belfast who shared their train berth with me.  one day we hire bikes and a guide [to drive mine] and cruise around to caves, villages and a waterfall.  the Hmong women at the caves smell cash and swarm all over Nicky and Michael.  our guide is a wealth of information and we quiz him about the culture and customs of the tribes.  he warns the women of some tribe have magic herbs which can make a man fall in love with the women.     

fellow travelers are giving me a tough time about leaving for China without a lonely planet guide. in Cambodia and Vietnam there is a micro industry of copying books and selling them cheap. so you can get a lonely planet copy for $1US - $3US. i have a whole list of excuses for them like i am too cheap or it is too heavy [lp china is 3 inches thick] or Chinese border officials are quite likely to take away a LP China and they have good solutions for every excuse. the truth is i am tired of relying on LP. i want to see if i can run the gauntlet of scams and the language barrier on my own plus i have the words Nick had written down for me.

i desperately need to know as this trip comes to an end that i have pushed myself outside my comfort zone and been open to experiences that come along instead of manufacturing them or relying on the experience of a LP writer.

throughout this trip i have used my instincts to guide me and it has served me well so i think i can rely on this to get me to Hong Kong. although when it's 1AM and i am still trying to book a flight from Kunming to Shenzhen i am cussing China before i even get there. i end up paying an extra $50US to book via Expedia because the websites for the Chinese airlines don't take credit cards. i am still pissed about the inflated price of Chinese visas for Americans and so if i hadn't paid for the visa i would skip China.

limestone and liquor

one reason i always wanted to visit Vietnam was Halong Bay.  so i have been looking forward to this location for the whole of my trip.  i'm the first on the mini bus when it comes around to pick up guests and the next stop is at the hotel where my friends from dinner the night before are staying. i see them coming out and wave hello.

the bus on the 3.5 hour ride to Halong Bay to get the Junk makes a stop at the obligatory ceramic factory and while there i am happy to run into the two young European girls from Hue. they have had an equally bad night bus to Hanoi and said a rock was thrown at their bus shattering the glass and cutting someone's eye quite badly. this explains why there are so many blown out windows on the buses. they have joined up with a large group of young westerners for the Halong Bay trip so i hope their trip will improve with the added buffer.

the port is chaotic but our guide is orderly so we get onto the tender and out to our boat with a minimum of hassle and we are off to the tour the bay. the first day we cruise around, climb through some caves, kayak around some of the formations and chat with some of the other tourists and travelers on the boat.

the second day we move away from the other boats and into a private cove where we kayak around the formations and through caves. we take our time, enjoy the isolation and magic of the area jumping off the boat to cool off when we get too hot. happy hour and dinner and i tumble tired and happy into bed. this has been a wonderful tour in part because the boat is great and in part because this group of people is tons of fun. Halong Bay has been the highlight of Vietnam.

two of the couples from the boat are heading to Sapa on the night train.  i really want to go to Sapa but know should be heading instead up to China from Hanoi. the couple from the UK solve my dilemma when they offer me a bed in their sleeper so i am off to Sapa.

i also meet two Americans one of which is fluent in Chinese languages. i ask him and he agrees to write me out a list of words that i can use in China as i plan to do it without a travel guide.

June 24, 2010

oh Ho

i arrived on the night bus from Hue. it was the worst of the bus rides i think because this driver was really bad. there are two drivers for the night bus and when we get pulled over by the 'traffic wardens' there is a quick change of drivers so i suspect one may not be correctly licensed. you know when you are getting close to the end of the trip when the drivers let the hotel touts onto the bus. the bus stop is again some random intersection surrounded by taxi and hotel touts. there are two good ways to deal with them. the first is let all the other westerners get off first then sneak around the back. the second is to jump off first and move quickly down the street because they are mostly too lazy to follow you and wait for an easier target behind you.

i find a cafe in the old quarter and leave my bag for a couple of hours while i explore Hanoi, look for a hotel and book a trip to Halong Bay for the next day. i beeline it to the mausoleum where the body of Ho Chi Minh is on display. he is a national hero similar to Che. this is a must do in Hanoi because the whole experience is surreal. first off, i am really lucky because Uncle Ho's body is here. for two months every year [October and November] he is shipped off to Russia for 'maintenance'. the list of rules about walking through the mausoleum is long and strictly enforced. i see the guards pulling random visitors from the line and making them empty their pockets and they are not kind. this is after a TSA style security check where all electronics must be checked at a desk. i just avoid all eye contact and walk as slowly as possible [the guards push you if you stop or walk too slowly or put your hands in your pockets or talk or laugh] so i can enjoy the air conditioning. mostly i just feel sorry for the guy who lived a humble life and is now pumped full of something and left on display. 

as i leave the museum at the complex i'm approached by this tiny Vietnamese woman who asks me to help her with her English.  we talk for about 10 minutes and she has a gazzillion questions for me and i wait for a product pitch but it never comes.  other travelers have similar stories and it makes for a great experience and an opportunity to ask questions about the culture and their families.  i ask about the disparity in response to Westerners and she tells me the people are cranky because it is so hot but i'm not buying it.

there are no tuk-tuks in Vietnam but the taxis are metered so it is not required to negotiate the cost up front. however, when i grab a taxi from the mausoleum complex i get a block and see the taxi driver has started the meter at 100,000 dong [$5] instead of 10,000 [50 cents] and i tell him to reset it or pull over. this doesn't end well for him. i get out against his protests and i am in front of the Dutch embassy. the guards don't speak English but i gesture wildly and the taxi leaves. i hope all fraudulent taxi drivers burn in hell for all eternity.  really. 

lunch at KOTO [know one teach one]. i am such a sucker for these NGO's that are doing such great work to get the kids off the street. again the food is fantastic and staff eager to create a good experience for the patrons. this one holds the distinction that Bill Clinton has been a visitor.

there is a feeling among some travelers that the lonely planet writers are fear mongers because the guides are constantly warning about all the ways you will get scammed.  after the bad taxi i become frozen by the fear of being ripped off and it makes for a bad afternoon of hunting Hanoi in the heat of the afternoon for a decent hotel and tour office to book a trip to Halong Bay.  hang in there with me for just a minute as the day turns out quite good. 

i get my admin [that's what we call our travel booking, laundry, blogging, email, skype or other chores] done and head over the Tamarind Cafe for dinner.  here i have dinner with two Australians and two Kiwis and we laugh and swap travel stories late into the evening.  the Australians are also booked for a Halong Bay trip and it sounds like we may be on the same boat but there are so many boats that we can't be sure.  off to bed for a good night sleep with just a little bit of trepidation about the quality of the boat and tour of Halong Bay.

June 22, 2010

my short lived love affair with Vietnam has ended in Hue.  every day i wake up and say today is a new day and i must give Vietnam a good chance but here is the first time i feel like i really want to go back to the US.  it is a wildly huge pendulum swing between the people who are interested in westerners and the indifference and offensiveness of others.   i take an early bus to Hue and spend a very hot.. 98 degrees afternoon visiting the Imperial City.  it is huge - like 2 kilometers by 2 kilometers - i walk the whole city and end up 'off the beaten track'.  i am clearly not in a good area and there are no taxis because they are only outside the imperial city.  no one speaks English but asking for a taxi works and along the way they keep pointing me in the direction that i need to go.  after the 1000 year old ruins of the Khmer Empire in Cambodia the imperial city is unimpressive.  mostly it has been bombed to bits [that is quite the theme here] and not so lovingly restored if at all.   when i do get to a taxi i ask to go to one of the best hotels in Hue the Saigon Hotel so i can get a salad and a glass of wine.  i find 5 star prices but poorly executed western food.
the tombs outside the city are good and i get an early motorbike hoping to miss the crowds but they have the same idea.  in Cambodia the ruins rise from the forest in a majestic way that takes your breath away when you see them.  here in Hue i keep looking for some elegant remnantt of the Nhgyen dynasty but find only a shadow of some former glory.  if you have been to asia or seen video of the aggressive motocyclists then you can imagine what my day was like.   this is the only motorcycle i have hired so far that i did not like - i guess i should have known when he put on the gloves.  travelers are polarized on Hue and i vote this is a good spot to skip.

i plan to take the night bus to Hanoi and two younger europeans girls at my hotel are planning the same so we share a taxi which drops us at the side of the road and we wait with a bunch of locals.  we are travel chatting and they are trying to get quickly to Laos.  i tell them it's quite different and they perk up immediately.  they also have not enjoyed Vietnam and i am relieved to hear i am not the only one.  when the bus pulls up i get on because i just have a daypack but the girls wait to store their packs underneath and don't get a seat!!  so again i am sitting on bus waving goodbye to fellow travelers screwed by the bus agents.  such is SE Asia but DON'T feel sorry for me because i could easily travel by plane between the locations here.  it costs a tiny bit more to fly, is faster and more comfortable, but i choose to do Vietnam overland. 

June 18, 2010

china beach

when i am sitting in a bus or a plane every time i look at my watch it is about two minutes from the last time i looked. when i am sitting on the beach every time i check my watch thirty or forty minutes have gone by. why does time go faster on the beach?

finally i have found a spot in Vietnam that i like. Hoi An is a smaller city with a historic old town that is well preserved and easily explored by bike. the beach is a 15 minute bike ride away. it is another UNESCO site that has been flooded with money. i am wandering the town and stumble across a restaurant called the Secret Garden and when i go for dinner the next night it is a little slice of heaven. i have become a bit wary of the food since i left Thailand and find myself eating more fried stuff instead of fresh local produce and my body is feeling the effects of a greasy diet. Ricardo, an expat and one of the owners, makes a recommendation to me on a local dish they prepare fresh and then invites me to see how it is prepared. wine glass in hand i sit down for a mini Vietnamese cooking class.

i get up at 5AM to go to My Son which is a 1000 year old ruin.  there isn't a tour bus in site and i really enjoy wandering around.  later i met a partner of Bazar, a restaurant in Hoi An, Fredrico who is an arechologist working on the site.  he told me it's quite dangerous to wander around the ruins because of the UXO.  i think it woud be quite ironic given all the concerns about my safety from family and friends if i ended up getting blown up by an american bomb.

here in Hoi An i find quite a few NGOs operating restaurants and shops and i appreciate the opportunity to give back in a responsible way. at a place called Streets the manager asks me how he can better market the restaurant and i give him marketing 101 on social media.

everyone who knows me well knows i can hike for 8 hours non stop but put me in a shopping mall and in 10 minutes i am exhausted and my feet hurt. so it has come as a great surprise that i have really enjoyed having clothes made here. i hope they turn out well.  i give up on going to the shop where there is no air conditioning and the lights are only on half the time.  instead i invite my tailor to my hotel where i usually have both lights and ac.
i meet so many wonderful people here and every day and night is filled with fun. several months ago they started planned power outages so every other day the power is out across town. talk about inconvenient! most hotels compensate by using generators but cut a/c and other services.   the place i am staying has a pool so it quite nice to cool off there. when asked the reason, the finger is being pointed to the northern friend [China] who is controlling the water flow on the river where power is generated. did i just blog about how China was going to do this exact thing in Laos?

June 16, 2010

night bus in Vietnam

i get booted off the first bus because it was overbooked.  i have the seat already so i make them pay me $5US and they put me on another bus a half hour later.  it seems there is all this yelling and conflict constantly between the Vietnamese.  once the bus is moving i wrap myself up in a sarong and go to sleep.  because of the bus change i end up at the wrong spot in Nha Trang.  i take a cab over the travel agency and tell them to pay for the cab.  they don't want to [and it's only a $1US] but i do not back down and they take care of it.  i leave my bag in storage there for the day and head to the beach.
i arrange for a boat trip out to the islands a bit of snorkeling.  the masks are really bad but i love to snorkel and so i jump in even though there are jet skis and boats zipping along and a thin coating of gas covering the whole area.  it is the high season for Vietnamese travelers because the kids are just out of school.  the whole day has a very carnival like atmosphere. 

it reminds me of the boardwalks on the beach in New Jersey. the boat is mostly Vietnamese and when the boat stops for swiming the few westerners strip down to swimsuits in 2 seconds flat and jump in. the Vietnamese don't go swiming and they remain covered from head to toe in clothes.  after the third stop the motion catches up with them and like a wave across the whole boat they all start vomiting.  meanwhile the crew transforms the table into a platform for thier boy band - complete with guitar, drums and front man.  let's just say i do not think they would make it past Simon on American Idol.

i only have the one day here as i am getting another night bus to Hoi An in the evening.  what i have seen of Nha Trang is not impressive and i hope there is more to Vietnam than the dissappointment it has been thus far.

i am on the open tour bus which means i can jump on/off the bus at any location and it is $36US from Saigon to Hanoi which sounds like a deal to me.  it works out to just over .50US per hour.  i booked with TM Brother, however, every time i am asked by a local which ticket i am on they screw up thier faces terribly and say Sinh Cafe is the best open bus ticket.  thanks lonely planet!!

June 12, 2010

uncle ho

9 million people and 4 million motorcycles make up Saigon. i arrive late and wander around the maze and find a place to stay after i have talked to the tour company about the bitch. Saigon was the seat of the southern fight in the Vietnam civil war and so there is a lot of history here.  

i start the morning at the Cu Chi Tunnels and there is a 100 meter [300 feet] section of tunnels that you can crawl through and i force myself to do it. 50% of the group turns around before the first 10 feet. it is dark and claustrophobic and i find myself focusing on my breathing and moving as quickly as possible. it feels like being buried alive and i can't imagine how it would be live underground like this for days, weeks or months.

the next stop is the War Remnants Museum which documents the atrocities of war. there is an exhibit dedicated to the photojournalists who died during the war and their work in SE Asia. it is amazing. we end the day with a drink from the top floor of the Sheraton.

the next day i meet Katrin at the Reunification Palace. i'm pretty much tapped out on Uncle Ho and the propaganda against the Americans but everyone gives this site high marks and it is a time warp. nothing has been changed since Siagon fell to the VC in 1975. as we taxi over to a gazzillion year old pagoda and the meter goes unusually fast so we suspect we are getting ripped off. when we leave the pagoda the same taxi driver wants to take us back but we decline and use another one who gets lost but at least he doesn't rip us off. here's the thing, we are both pissed about getting ripped off and it's not about the money because it was about $1US.

i have the night bus to Nha Trang so we have a massage, a drink at the Rex, dinner and Katrin sees me off at the bus.  our paths crossed in Saigon but she is on the north to south tour and i am going in the other direction. we swap information on where we have been.  we share a love of books and laugh about how much of the weight in books we are carrying around.

back on the boat

two more days on the Mekong River before i leave it for inland Vietnam. going to the border crossing i meet a group of 5 Kenyans [they are actually of Indian descent born in Kenya and studying in England] who are delightful. we laugh and joke and tell stories all day. crossing the Cambodian/Vietnam border is uneventful and i don't take the more traveled route by bus but a bus/boat/bus combination that involves two separate dockings for each immigration checkpoint.

the landscape along the Mekong on the Cambodian side is filled with rice paddies and quite unpopulated. this changes as soon as we cross the border. at an 85 million people Vietnam is densely populated. here in the Mekong delta the river is lined with shanties and fish factories.

the first night in Vietnam we stay at a floating hotel on the river in Chau Doc. i escape into the bubble that is the Victoria and worlds apart from my floating hotel for a meal which i hope will be safe. after dinner the Kenyans come to find me to ask advice on a problem. one of the boys has been bitten by a cat. they are completely freaked out because no one at the clinic speaks English, they have no idea what the treatment should be and the doctor is demanding cash before he will treat the boy. i check my book and we talk through the risk of rabies which is pretty high in SE Asia, find him a translator and i assure him that it is common here for the clinics to ask for cash before a treatment. i tell him make sure the needles for the shots are clean.

no one sleeps well as it is so hot and for the first time i really need the mosquito net but without air conditioning it is unbearable and finally i abandon it so i can at least feel the fan. as the sun comes up i sit on the deck and watch as the river activity starts and i feel the enormity of the poverty here and how hard the people must work for basic survival.

i see the Kenyans at breakfast and get the update on the cat bite and plan to meet at 7:30 for the pickup for a tour of the area before the bus to Saigon. there was a miscommunication about the time and so when a woman shows up i'm the only one around and she goes to town yelling at me because the Kenyans have wandered off. well it turns out this bitch is our 'guide' for the day. she dishes it out to the Kenyans as well and if they had been out drinking all night and just too lazy to get up on time i would have kept my mouth shut but they are really good, kind people and i explain the dynamics of money - traveler - tour guide relationship to the bitch and she shuts up.

 it is a really bad introduction to Vietnam and there's another couple that joins our group and hears the end of the discussion. they seem really hostile and i think it must be because of the delay we caused. when i talk with them later i find they've been with the same bitch for three days and they said if she is rude one more time they will throw her in the water.

we do a morning tour of a cham village and it's awkward. i specifically have not booked anything that involved village tours because it seems quite voyeuristic and that is exactly how this feels. it is clear the people do not want to be photographed and i hate every minute of it. the next stop is a fish farm. it was so disgusting that i promise if you had seen it you would never eat fish again. i am learning a lot about our food sources on this trip.

June 8, 2010

temple hopping

after days of temple hopping in Siem Reap i remain in awe of the immense size and technology used by the Khmer Empire.  whenever i talked with other travelers about the temples there was always a glazed over look in thier eyes and now i understand why.   it is difficult to put words to the experience.  the global economy plus the begining of the rainy season here = temple sites are deserted. 
on the last day i visit some temple sites that are farther out and this is the only day that i run into bus loads of Chinese tourists.  on the road to the remote temples is the Landmine Museum which is the home to Aki Ra, a child soldier of the Khmer Rouge turned humanitarian.   his life is the story of how one person can impact the world.  http://www.yearzerodoc.coml/ none of the large tour buses filled with tourists stop here.

the temples each have thier own personality and each is as spectacular as the previous.  Angkor Wat is the mother of all temples and it is huge.  they say only the size and technologies of Manchu Pichu and Petra compare to the anchient civilization of Angkor Wat.  we hire a guide for one day and he is well educated and after a few years of working within the government to create change he has created a NGO focused on educating girls from rural areas like his home to empower the peasants.  http://www.ngo2bambooshoot.org/

June 3, 2010

to Choeung Elk or not?

while in Thailand i found a copy of First they Killed my Father a first person account by Louang Ung of the Khmer Rouge rule and her family's experience. it is not a pleasant read but it is very well written.

the killing fields of Cambodia are well documented and Choeung Elk is the most well known. it is a living graveyard where bones and teeth and clothes sprout up from the ground like grass would in other places. visiting the site is controversial with one side saying you must bear witness to the horror and the families saying this place holds the bodies of victims and is sacred.

for myself, i visit but i don't linger. i don't feel the need to walk on bones, see the 9,000+ skulls that have been collected or the tree marked 'against this tree the soldiers beat children to death to economize bullets' to bear witness to the horror of the Khmer Rouge. and it is horrific. i was prepared for most of what i would see but the sight of 89 huge craters that were the mass graves is a third dimension that has a big impact on me.

next i visit the school turned prison and torture camp inside the city. the horrors here were well documented by the Khmer Rouge and speaking from the dead there are rooms and rooms filled with pictures of the victims that stare at the camera with a full range of emotion.

these are leg cuff that immobilize the legs.  one set with a stake weighed about 10 pounds.  when the Vietnamese liberated Cambodia the Khmer Rouge killed as many prisoners as possible before fleeing but there were 7 people who were found alive. only three of them are still alive today and one of them was here the day i visit. he does not speak English and i was lucky to have met a Cambodian who was also visiting. she translated questions from several of us and he answers questions but after what he's been through the questions seem trite.  of course 24 hours later as i am sitting on a bus to Siem Reap i think of a few things i should have asked.

June 2, 2010

johm riab

hello in Khmer. the flight to Cambodia is way too short and i'm reading through my lonely plant as fast as i can.  i'm sooo excited to visit Phnom Penh and Angkor Wat and the Kampot coast.  the passport photos i have for visas have a white border around the edge and for whatever reason this drives the visa people crazy. at every border it's a really big deal, they pull out the scissors trip the white frame off. it makes me laugh on the inside but i pretend not to notice. as soon as i arrive in Phnom Penh i drop my bag and head out to explore.

first i hit the history museum then the palace. i think this photo from the palace grounds looks like a postcard with my body inserted. i'm farther south than i've been in a while so it is hot, hot, hot but i can't get into the palace grounds without my knees and elbows covered so i'm wearing a long sleeve black shirt.  i've decided they call it the wet season because of the 100% humidity since i haven't seen any rain yet.

there are some great NGOs working here and providing vocational training to get kids off the street. i eat at one of the restaurants were they train chefs and staff then hit the shop next door where all the products are made by the kids. i go by Wat Phnom and wish i hadn't. on one side there are elephants for begging and on the other tourists feeding monkeys that are so overweight their live span is probably cut in half. belatedly i remember someone else mentioning the fat monkeys in a blog so i should have skipped it. we find a tuk-tuk driver who speaks good english and hire him for the next day which is Choeung Elk and Tuol Sleng.  i haven't been shopping a lot but today i found a few items that i had to have [plus it all supports the kids] and when i get back to my room i lay like a drunken sailor among my purchases wondering how i will ever fit all this into my tiny pack.