Tuesday 9 April 2013


These last few posts have actually all been belatedly posted. I meant to put them up before, but a combination of factors didn't allow it. The first was a truly awful sunburn in a very strange spot which meant that I didn't want to sit at the computer to type (the chair was made of wicker, wicker. Enough said) for any length of time. The second factor was the sporadic availability of internet in Vietnam, so I just had to wait until I got to the next leg of my journey, the U.S. So these delayed posts have theoretically resulted in delaying other posts about the U.S., but seeing as I'm in the Seattle area, where I grew up and have many friends I don't get to see enough of, the things I've been up to are really only of interest to me, and any third party reader would probably be bored by a post about them anyway, so really things are right on track!

However, I suspect that posts will now become a bit less frequent/interesting for this leg of my trip, as it involves getting a job, finding an apartment/house to live in, and staying in one area for a time, before then commencing with the road trip portion of these travels. That's my theory anyway, but who knows, I kind of feel I could do an in-depth expose just on the size of marshmallows over here (honestly, these marshmallows looked like they could eat me, rather than the other way around) so perhaps there is writing material galore, we'll just have to see...   

Traditional Vietnamese Tansportation Dancing

Transportation in Vietnam, it's an adventure in itself. Planes, trains and automobiles, we've done a bit of it all now and there's definitely a hierarchy of discomfort. Planes are winning out, we've taken two domestic flights, the first was from Saigon to Hanoi. We showed up early at the airport, as you do, and managed to check in in an odd, non-queue situation. No one waits in line here, anywhere there would be a line in a Western country there's just a crush of people and first in, best dressed. There's no point getting annoyed, it's just a cultural thing, a Western hang up we must dispense with while we're here, like thinking there might ever be a break in traffic so you can cross the road without fearing the loss of a few toes, you'd be waiting there forever. Anyway, the non-queue thing, while commonplace, has never been more disconcerting than at the airport. While we were showing our passports and and trying to put our bags on the scales another group of of people actually came up to the counter and tried to hand the attendant their reservation information and documents around us. Even the guy at the desk seemed to think this was not the time because he gave them a stern talking to in Vietnamese and sent them back to the 'queue' area. After that we found our flight had been delayed by an hour and a half. When it was time to board, a bus came to collect all of us at the terminal doors for what was to be the shortest bus ride of our lives. We all piled on to the bus, spent some time shuffling about and getting situated, then discovered the plane directly behind and just a smidgen to the left of the bus was in fact our plane. The engine started, we executed a slow turn around the tail of the plane, and then stopped on the other side of it. Then we all piled off again. Once we were on board the plane, it quickly became apparent that the plane had been designed to service a shorter, smaller, Asian clientele. I felt like a giant in a dollhouse, with my knees tucked up in front of me, firmly wedged into the seat in front of me, just hoping the person sitting in it didn't decide to recline and kneecap me...

Then there's the buses. Well, not so much the buses as the roads. We had a three and a half hour bus ride to Ha Long Bay, so seven hours round trip, but with a night on the boat in between; and driving here at first looks like some sort of extreme sport you would have to be an adrenaline junkie to undertake, but upon closer inspection it reveals itself to be more like some sort of loosely choreographed, but fairly elegant, dance. It ebbs and flows, it's give and take, not just between the drivers, but pedestrians as well. There's never a break in traffic, so crossing the road is something of an act of faith. You just start out into the road and walk with purpose among the motorbikes. Horns are used in a special way, not as angry alarms, but as general, constant warnings. People just drive along honking, indicating "I'm here, look out, coming up on your left". Different vehicles also have different sounding horns, which brings me back to our bus trip. The horn on our bus had an almost musical quality, a series of little beeps all in a row. This sound rang out in a fairly continuous stream as we bounced, rattled and spine-crushingly lurched our way to and from Ha Long Bay. Drinking anything isn't advisable, unless you want to be wearing it, and food has a way of leaping out of whatever container it's in. It's also best not to look out the front windshield, as staying on your side of the road seems to be more of a suggestion than a rule, and games of chicken between you and other vehicles of various sizes are commonplace. Laura and I distracted ourselves with games of 'spot the best/weirdest/most improbable motorbike cargo'. The game is an ongoing challenge which has included everything from lengths of metal or bamboo at least twice the length of the motorbike, simply supported on a shoulder, with one hand being used to hold it in place and the other used to steer, to some large piece of metal scaffolding held on by two rope straps attached to it and over the driver's shoulders like backpack straps. But the cargo winner so far has been a man, on a motorbike, transporting a live, full grown cow down the highway. The cow was on its side, tied down to a plank of wood which was tied across the back of the motorbike. The absurdity of it would have been funny if we hadn't felt so bad for the poor cow.

 And then there's the trains. Ah the trains...I've saved the best for last. What an experience that was. At the time I originally wrote this we were in Nha Trang and to get there we had to take a ten hour train trip. Being a day time journey our options were a hard seat or a soft seat, so we booked a soft seat in an air conditioned compartment because, you know, we're lightweights that way. We purchased lots of snacks and got to the station feeling prepared. But we weren't. Not for car nine, where we would be spending the journey, and where we quickly realized we would be maintaining more of a hardcore traveller status than we'd intended when we tried to cop out with our soft seats and air conditioning. We walked into chaos, with masses of people organizing their things and finding their seats, some of which were tiny plastic chairs placed in the aisles, apparently when they ran out of normal seats to sell they just kept on going anyway, but as soon as we got on it was all eyes on us, the only foreigners. Reaching our seats among the battered, frayed "soft" seats I discovered mine full of crushed crackers from the last occupant, with rubbish stuffed into every available crevice around the seat, as well as a sizable bag of it underfoot.

The smell of the carriage was something of a combination of used chicken bedding straw and unwashed, well used human feet. The smell was made much worse about nine hours in when we stopped inexplicably and the air conditioning, which had been tepid at its best, went out completely. The journey was also continuously interspersed with the smell of every type of cup o' noodles ever made (everyone elses choice of train snack), as people passed us with them in the aisles, filled from a boiling water source we never figured out the location of. Our on board entertainment status was maintained throughout the trip, anything we did, or even just sitting there, inspired fascination and open staring. I half expected Laura to get some kind of standing ovation when she started eating an apple. One man even conducted a sort of interview with her (mainly in Vietnamese, interspersed with English words) about her apple eating experience while it was going on. The food cart rattled back and forth periodically and it looked like an auction house with everyone holding up their arms, shouting to each other and handing around trays as the servers rapidly dished up rice and chicken, throwing some soup in from a large bucket of it they carried behind the cart. Soup, an odd choice on a rocking, clunking train, but everyone managed it with ease. Even the the sweet couple two rows up from us who were eating it while juggling their cute little daughter between them.

As for our immediate neighbors, I spent most of the journey with the leg of the older woman next to me sort of across my lap, with her foot pressed into the back of the seat in front of me. Laura's neighbor put up the arm rest between them and made himself at home, taking up part of her seat as well as his own. Somehow, we both managed to never discover what lay behind the toilet doors, though there may have been a bit of dehydration involved in this feat... When we reached Nha Trang, I can't say we were sad to leave the train behind.

All forms of transportation over here have been an experience, and we haven't even ridden on a motorbike!    

Monday 8 April 2013

Ha Long Bay cruising...

Ah, Ha long Bay, so beautiful you can't even fully register what you're looking at. Towers of stone wearing crowns of lush, green vegetation rising out of opaque, pale blue water... and they just go on and on. The junk boats meander through them, revealing giant sea caves, arches of rock and the floating fishing village where the school, indicated by its flag (and paid for largely with the profits from a James Bond movie which filmed scenes in a nearby sea cave) sits in the middle of floating houses painted bright turquoise with yellow trim or, in some cases, all different colours. At the fishing village, one of our stops on our lovely overnight junk boat cruise of the islands, we took to kayaks to explore the village and its surrounds. As we paddled, huge birds (apparently they were Black Kites, local to the area, or so the bird enthusiast websites tell me) drifted through the air above us. Laura and I were so enjoying the kayaking we were the last ones back, no doubt causing a bit of anxiety to Peter, our good-natured and very funny Vietnamese tour guide who was devoted to his schedule. He liked to come around on the boat and announce to all of us "sunset wine tasting party in nine minutes, yes, yes" or "boat leaving for amazing cave in seven minutes, yes, yes" (he like to emphasis things things with double yeses).

We soon discovered our boat had a few quirks, like the way the electrics seemed to be set up in some special way which meant that all the lights went out in the cabins periodically and without notice. Although, you could rely on it happening every time the boat's engine started. This state of affairs resulted in me unexpectedly taking a shower in total darkness, figuring out what was shampoo, conditioner, or bath gel based only on smell and consistency and shouting out my progress to Laura as I went. Namely, "Ok... I think they're all shampoo!" It was weird enough just taking a shower on a moving boat... However, the boat was in fact lovely, with a beautiful sundeck up the top where you could lounge and the bar staff would bring cocktails or a glass of wine up to you, and an open bow, where you could stand right at the edge and look out at the passing scenery. It was like getting to sail through the peaks of a mountain range.

Other highlights of the cruise included swimming in the bay (surprisingly cold, so breathtaking in every sense) and visiting a cave very aptly named 'Amazing Cave', which was a series of caverns that got progressively bigger until we were standing in one which was the length and breadth of about two city blocks (depending on your city I suppose...) and about three stories high. It looked like the lair of a giant dragon, who perhaps popped out for a minute just before you arrived. It simultaneously looked like the landscape of an alien planet and a set from an Indiana Jones film. Someone else in our group said that if he was an evil genius, plotting to rule the world, it would be his choice of headquarters.

The whole trip was over much too soon, we could've done with two more days at least of stunning scenery and discovering even more amusing aspects of the boat, like when we were packing up in our cabin and I was looking through our basket of complimentary toiletries, all neatly packaged in little boxes and labelled with the boat company's slogan. All very run of the mill, until I reached 'razor kit' (just a normal disposable razor in a box) and said to Laura "Well that's unfortunate". "What?" she asked, and I proceeded to read out the words on the box... "Leave your worries behind-razor kit".