UPDATES (12/15): Entries updated for Phnom Penh and Siam Reap, Cambodia, and the map has been updated to show the full loop of my journey.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Photos, phinally

After a long drought of updates, I've finally landed in Bangkok with a little time and a free internet connection. This has allowed me to update pictures from the past 10 or so days, which, evidently, have been full of new sights. Starting with Mid-Coast Vietnam, you can follow the trip chronologically from bottom to top, ending in Bangkok. I'll try and do another entry soon, to give all of the images some context. Until then, enjoy.

Bangkok, Thailand


Welcome to Bangkok:
The dirt road that formed the passageway to Thailand from Cambodia was rough and marked by potholes and bridges under construction. When we finally crossed over into Thailand (and transferred to a bus via a tuk-tuk), there was a marked difference- the roads were smoothly paved, and the buildings and vehicles that we passed were less run down. Thailand was displaying its "progress", gained by rapid economic development, much as a result of a very developed tourism industry. After a few hours, the bus stopped in the middle of Bangkok, at the (in)famous Khao San road. Khao San is the central backpacker area, and is notorious for being the type of area where you can find anything you can imagine- and some things beyond your imagination. It was an overwhelming introduction to Thailand as we dodged our way between 6-foot tall "ladyboys" in heels (local lingo for [very convincing] transsexuals), tattoo parlors, fellow backpackers and locals selling anything and everything from their small shops or carts. After choosing a hotel out of the multitude of guesthouses available- ranging from the luxurious to the reprehensible- we had a good dinner at a vegetarian cafe around the corner. We then set out to find the infamous red-light district, Patpong, to see what all the fuss was about. Though once a center for the thriving sex trade in Bangkok, Patpong has since evolved into a tourist attraction, centered around a night market. I saw many families with children, shopping for souvenirs and knick-knacks, only a few feet away from the go-go bars that line the two main sois (streets) that make up the Patpong district. We stopped in a bar for a beer, dodged some errant ping-pong balls, then headed back to the hotel to rest up and contemplate all of the oddities that Bangkok had displayed to us on our first night.

The Next day in Bangkok was Ian's last full day before he flew to Hanoi, and then onwards back home. In order to finish the rest of his souvenir shopping, we visited the Chatuchak weekend market. Chatuchak is a market unlike any I've seen. It is made up of over 15,000 stalls, covering 35 acres- some say it is the largest market in the world. It is estimated that over 200, 000 people visit the market each day, browsing for everything from clothes and accessories to pets and garden supplies. As we wandered through the tight passageways between stalls, I soon got the feeling that I was in a labyrinth of commerce, always surrounded by buyers and sellers. One part of me wanted nothing more than to get out to some fresh air, but there was something compelling, almost hypnotic, about the continuous energy that surged through Chatuchak. It carried you from stall to stall, looking for the best deal on a t-shirt or that perfect souvenir. Soon, hours have gone by without any exposure to daylight, but I'd barely noticed. I finally took a break and had my first taste of Thai papaya salad (Som Tam), which consists of shredded green papaya, lots of chili pepper, fish paste, green beans, tomato, garlic and lime/citrus juice. It was pungent and spicy, but good for the hot weather. Having had (more than) our fill of the market, we headed back towards Khao San, Ian laden with a new backpack full of souvenirs.

The next morning, we took the river taxi for a short, scenic ride passing by various buildings and monuments. Our destination was the Grand Palace, but by the time we arrived and saw the scale of all of the sights, we figured we wouldn't have enough time to see everything and have Ian back in time to make his flight to Hanoi. We went back towards our hotel and checked out. After one last fruit shake, Ian took a taxi to the airport and we parted ways. It was here that I began the second stage of my travels- going it alone. Since Ian had been doing most of the organizing up to this point, I wasn't sure what was in store for me and how I would handle travelling by myself. Fortunately, I had a friendly place to stay for a few days in Bangkok to adjust- My friend from college, Vivek, grew up in Bangkok and I was able to stay with his family and plan out the rest of my travels. I took a taxi to their apartment, and was warmly received by his parents and greeted by the king of the house, a shi-tzu named Rex. The apartment was very nice, and a welcome refuge where I could (finally) do my laundry, have access to free internet and have a home away from home. As an added bonus, Vivek's family is originally from India, and so I was treated to delicious homemade Indian food during my stay.

The next day, I set out for the Grand Palace again since we had been unable to visit the day before. The palace is truly magnificent, featuring a huge complex of gilded buildings, with golden domes and shimmering jeweled trim in every direction. There are statues and murals everywhere and each feature adds to the grandiose nature of the area. There are still official functions carried out on the grounds, including coronations and royal funerals.
Just around the corner is another landmark in Bangkok, Wat Pho, which is the largest and oldest wat (Buddhist temple) in the city. Wat Pho is also known as the temple of the reclining Buddha, as it is the home of a giant statue of Buddha, laying on his side. The statue measures 43 meters long and 15 meters high- it is truly an impressive sight. I walked around the grounds surrounding the temple for a bit, stopping to check out a koi pond and some more impressive statues and buildings. By the time I had finished, I realized that I had spent my entire day visiting these sites- a testament to the density of culture and art that are found in this part of Bangkok.

The next day I decided to take advantage of having free internet and stayed in the apartment to take care of business that I had been neglecting during my travels. This was a fortunate decision, since that day (October 7th) is around when the riots broke out near the parliament building in Bangkok. Pro- and anti- government demonstrators had gathered near the government buildings (right near the sites I toured the day before), and protesters were clashing with police. I was glad to be safe in the apartment, since I later heard reports of many injuries and some deaths as a result of the fighting. Little did I know at the time that this conflict would continue in Bangkok for the rest of my travels.
The Ancient City:
For my last day in Bangkok, I took a small trip just outside of the city upon the advice of my hosts. My destination was the Ancient City, a huge park filled up with scale replicas of sites from throughout Thailand. These included houses, small villages, temples, and bridges. Everything was intricately detailed, and it took hours (on a bike) to go through the whole collection, stopping occasionally to take pictures and look around. Though at times it had the air of a giant amusement park, sans roller coasters, the authentic reproductions of sites that were either too far from Bangkok to visit or no longer existing were truly impressive. I returned to Bangkok (with sunburned arms from the bike riding) via the public bus system- which proved to be an adventure unto itself. After hailing a makeshift shuttle on the street and figuring out that I needed to get on the orange #25 bus and not the red one, I finally made it back to Bangkok safe and sound.

Siem Reap ( Ankor), Cambodia

Siem Reap Temples
For our second full day in Siem Reap, Ian and I decided to carry on with our temple visits, this time staying around the city and touring as many sites as we could. For this, we hired a tuk-tuk and driver for the day, who would bring us around the loop and wait for us as we visited the many different temples.

Our first stop was Preah Khan, which displays both Hindu and Buddhist flavors in the intricate engravings on nearly every square inch of stone and in many well preserved statues. From here, we climbed through the massive stones at Ta Prohm, which shared the same overgrown nature as Beng Malea that we had previously visited. This was actually where scenes from the movie "Tomb Raider" was shot, and the trees were crawling over walls and doorways to spectacular effect.

We met out tuk-tuk driver again, and headed toward Angkor Thom, a large complex of buildings and sculptures, highlighted by the towering Bayon temple. Bayon is marked by immense 4-sided stones, with a giant face carved into each side. These silent sentinels glared at you from every angle as you toured the ruins, admiring the scale of construction combined with the intricacy of the detailed carvings in the walls. Around Bayon are smaller sites, including the Temple of Elephants, with- you guessed it - many sculptures of elephants, as well as the Temple of the Leper King.

We decided to head home after a delicious dinner of amok, a traditional Cambodian dish featuring chopped fish or chicken in in a coconut milk sauce laced with turmeric and other spices. We needed to rest up, since tomorrow was our last day in the area and we planned on getting up for sunrise to visit the most famous of all the temples: Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat is the most photographed of the sites around Siem Reap, and justly so. As we arrived in the pink light of the morning, however, we realized that we weren't the only ones with the bright idea to sacrifice sleep for a few pictures of the sunrise. Hordes of tourists were lined up on the steps facing east for this photographic rite (repeated again at sunset). The three immense, knobby towers that are the highlight of Angkor Wat were silhoutted by the rising sun; it was quite a breathtaking site indeed. We eagerly explored the massive complex, surrounded by a wide moat, and purused the murals that were etched into the perimeter of the main building. However, three straight days of crawling around carved rocks was quite enough for us, and we headed back into town to prepare for our trip to the Thai border that afternoon.

Siem Reap (Peripheral temples), Cambodia

Temples outside of Siem Reap
After Phnom Penh, Ian and I moved north towards Siem Reap, a popular destination for its myriad of temple ruins. Our journey was an exhilarating 5 hours in a minivan, in which the driver insisted on cruising between the lanes and leaning on the horn to warn innocent pedestrians and motorbike riders that we were barreling through. Though the scenery of the Cambodian countryside was beautiful, the incessant horn made an iPod or earplugs indispensable if we wanted to arrive at our destination without a headache.

We settled into the Red Lodge, a very nice (and cheap) guesthouse in Siem Reap. The next day, we set out with two friends from the US (who were in Asia for a conference) to visit some of the temples surrounding the city. We hired a car and driver for the day, since the temples we sought were hours outside of the main city, beyond the reach of bicycles. Our first stop in the morning was Bantea Srei, notable for the pinkish stone that was used in its construction. The site consisted of a large perimeter wall, and intricately carved interior structures. The hue of the stone was beautiful, and made for great photos (if you could manage not to get all the other tourists taking pictures in your shot).

After a brief break from the heat drinking fresh coconut juice in the shade, we drove off to our next destination, Kbal Spean. Unbeknown to us, getting to this site would not be as easy as simply strolling in from the parking lot. We needed to do quite a bit of hiking through the jungle to get there, but the walk was very pleasant as we brushed through the lush emerald foliage and wandered deeper into the unknown. The remoteness of the ruins also contributed to its preservation, as there were much fewer tourists to contend with and you could more easily imagine yourself as an explorer coming upon a sacred site for the very first time. The signature features of Kbal Spean are it's underwater carvings. Most of the notable depictions are found within waterfalls and under shallow streams. The well preserved, though slightly obscured, carvings were directly in the bedrock which added some intrigue as to the logistics of carving rocks underwater (though they were probably created during a dry period).

From here, we sought out our final destination, Beng Melea. As a result of some closed roads, the drive took considerably longer than expected, and involved shuddering down dirt roads and fording a river in our driver's late-80s Toyota Camry. After wandering through very remote countryside and a few scattered villages, we finally made it (though slightly behind schedule) to the site of the ruins. Beng Melea was arguably the most spectacular of the three sites visited that day, and it provided an awe-inspiring scene of the battle between nature and human construction. The entire massive temple was ensnared in trees and vines that had crept in from the surrounding jungle. Roots wrapped around intricately carved stones, and huge trees rose up from within the walls, forming a canopy of green above the sacred site. We explored quickly since night was falling, and we were specifically warned by a local that this is when the snakes come out. Given the surroundings, I wouldn't have been surprised to see Indiana Jones there, running away from the snakes along with us.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Phnom Penh, Cambodia
The morning after our tour of the Mekong Delta, we were on the road again. This time, we were leaving Vietnam and heading off to Cambodia. We got our bus at 7am, rushing out and almost forgetting our passports at the hotel. The bus ride was long, though briefly interrupted by the border crossing process. At the Vietnam-Cambodia border, we got out of the bus and were ushered through "immigration", which consisted of a busload of people standing around in a lobby, confused and wondering if they were ever going to see their passports again. Once through the mysterious bureaucracy, we came out on the other side, and I took my first steps in Cambodia. Not knowing what to expect, we walked around a small village right on the border while waiting for our bus to be cleared for the rest of the voyage. The most dominant feature for the first few miles after you've entered Cambodia is the Casino. Since gambling is legal in Cambodia, the mass of gamers coming in from bordering countries to indulge is a major source of income. Having too few funds to gamble away, we settled on getting lunch and finding an ATM to have some cash once we arrived in the capital, Phnom Penh. The official currency of Cambodia is the Riel (400 Riel =$1), but you wouldn't know this from going to an ATM or making any purchases- everything is done with US dollars. This resulted in quite a bit of confusion when I first tried to withdraw money and only could get greenbacks. On the other hand, once I had established that this was the norm, I was relieved to not have to divide everything by 17,000 as I had been doing for my currency conversions in Vietnam.

A few more hours on the bus after the border crossing, and we arrived in Phnom Penh. The architecture and layout were not all that different from what I had witnessed in Vietnam. However, the economic and social disparities between the two countries quickly became apparent. As the bus rolled through the downtown streets, piles of garbage cluttered the sidewalks, the roads were in disrepair and the city had a generally depressed air about it. After leaving the bus and running through the now customary gauntlet of taxi and "tuk-tuk" (multipassenger motorcycle taxis) touts, we got to our hotel and settled in.

Only having planned for a couple of days in Phnom Penh, we got straight to work on taking in the sights and getting a taste of Cambodian culture. We decided our first stop should be to one of the well known attractions in the area, the "Killing Fields" that were the site of brutal massacres by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and1979. [The Khmer Rouge were a Marxist regime, led by the infamous Pol Pot, that killed 1-2 million people (about 20-30% of the population) in a genocide with an end goal of "social engineering". In order to set up their ideal society based on agrarian communes, the Khmer Rouge tortured and massacred anyone suspected of promoting education, progress, religion or any foreign ideas, including foreigners, intellectuals, religious figures and teachers.]

We asked a tuk-tuk driver if he could take us there since it was a few miles out of town, and he said that he already had a couple going there, but we may be able to share the ride. The other couple, Andre and Melissa, happened to be Americans as well, and turned into good friends for the remainder of our time in the city. The four of us shared a ride out the the site, and as we drove down the dirt road leading down to the Killing Fields, we had no idea what we were in for.
A sign of things to come was the focal point in the center of the site: A seven-story pagoda reaching to the sky, each floor filled completely with only one thing... human skulls. As we walked around the grounds, which were relatively nondescript, the mood did not get any more uplifting. The terrain looked like any regular field, except that it was pocketed with large depressions everywhere, ranging in diameter from 7-20 feet. The signs placed intermittently throughout the field provided a grim education; the pits were used to bury those killed in the bloody genocide orchestrated by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Everywhere we looked, there were more mass graves, and as the sky turned gray with clouds, it was not hard to imagine the horrors that took place right where you were standing, perhaps not more than 30 years ago. Soon, the sky broke out into a violent thunderstorm, and Ian, Andre, Melissa and I took shelter in a small gazebo. There, we all reflected on the pervasive mood of death and despair that hung over the whole place. Even though we had not really said a word to each other since arriving, we all shared the same depressed and solemn disposition. We huddled under the roof, watching the sheets of rain continue for another twenty minutes, before we finally decided to make a break for the tuk tuk and have a change of scenery. We finally made it back, our mood lightened up a bit from racing back through the pouring rain.

Our next destination, however, would do very little to brighten our day. The four of us, now soaking wet, proceeded to visit Tuol Sleng, a.k.a. S-21, which was a prison used by the Khmer Rouge to hold their victims before murdering them. From the outside, the former high school seemed innocuous enough. But, as I wandered through the dark, dank hallways, and passed the rooms that had been converted to jail cells and torture chambers, I was soon overwhelmed by a sense of despair and darkness. A room filled with black and white photos of the victims, some in large format, gave faces to the haunted souls that permeated the air as you toured the building. I wandered off on my own, reflecting on the personal stories that were told on the faces in the photos, and stopped as I got into a dark, silent room, that had been divided into tiny cells for prisoners. There, with the rain still drenching the ground outside, and small creaks and unidentifiable sounds breaking the weighty silence, I felt that I occupied a space more haunted than anywhere I'd ever been. You could sense the pain and despair seeping in from every corner, and you can almost feel the restless souls brush by you as you stand there, transfixed by an iron chain that was once attached to the leg of a victim.

The rain continued through the rest of the day, as did the depressed mood of our group of four. We all were deeply affected by the sights we had taken in, and wrapped up the day reflecting on our grim introduction to Phnom Penh.

(For more background on the Khmer Rouge, this BBC article is a good quick summary)

Mekhong Delta, Vietnam

Mekhong Delta

Our tour of the Mekhong delta was a breathtaking whirlwind, covering many aspects of this fertile area in a short amount of time. We took a tour bus from downtown Ho Chi Minh City, until we reached the delta and then the entire group boarded a boat that took us down the river. The Mekhong is enormous, as wide as a football field is long in some parts. The water is a terra-cotta brown, a result of the silt that is constantly being stirred up. As out boat cruised along, we passed all sort of crafts, from enormous barges loaded with tons of sand, to small fishing boats manned by the local villagers.

Our first stop was to a small outpost where they made coconut candy. The coconut milk is first extracted by a press, then cooked with sugar until it's thick and syrupy. They then cool it, and stretch it out on long tables like taffy until it's cut into bite-sized pieces. It was delicious, and amazing to watch the process. They use every bit of the coconut, including the husks which they use as kindling to fire the stoves.

Moving along, were taken to enjoy out next treat: honey tea. The tea is light and citrusy, and complemented by honey made from local bees. Apparently, the hives were not far away, since throughout the tasting we were accompanies by the bees, who seemed to be reclaiming their honey by attaching themselves to every sweet surface on out table- including the rims of our glass. After successfully avoiding bee-stung lips, I decided a little more danger was in order, and posed for a picture with a giant python wrapped over my shoulders. The snake was actually very serene, and didn't seem to mind the photo-op too much.

Then, in a caravan of carts pulled by donkeys, we made our way to our next stop, where we would be served fresh local fruit and serenaded by traditional Vietnamese music. The fruit was sweet and fragrant, and included several types of lychees, hot-pink and spiky dragon fruit, miniature bananas, and others that I couldn't even name. The music consisted of traditional stringed, guitar-like instruments, and two vocalists. The songs were at times haunting, but carried a hopeful tone (even though I couldn't understand any of the lyrics). Sitting there, enjoying the colorful fruit and timeless music in a setting that appeared to be the middle of the jungle was quite a treat, and a welcome respite from the hectic bustle of the city to which we were soon headed.

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

As soon as we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), I new that this was different than any other place I'd seen in Vietnam to date. First of all, there were more motorbikes (scooters) than I had ever seen before- estimated by one local as 1 for every 4 people in the city- men, women, and children. The fluid but slow movement of traffic was a clue to the bustling activity that lay ahead. The city shows clear signs of development, with skyscrapers and automobiles, and stores selling genuine Nike and Louis Vuitton goods instead of the knock-offs you see in all the markets in the rest of the country. There is a clear sense that Vietnam is on the move, and it's all being driven by this city, whose residents still use the name Saigon in daily discourse.

We started our trip with a view from the 9th floor penthouse bar of a hotel, watching the sunset from that height lended a sense of serenity to the city that stirred beneath (even though the drink prices clearly reflected the corporate clientele). After a delicious dinner of grilled squid in a low-key but excellent restaurant, we returned to our hotel to rest up.

The next day, we decided to get a better sense of the history of Vietnam, and visited the Reunification (a.k.a. Independence) Palace. This was a large building with distinctive modern architecture that went through the tumultuous changes surrounding the war, and it's peculiar history is marked by the map rooms and bunkers that are interlaced with corporate looking conference rooms and imperial sleeping quarters.

Afterwards, we moved on to the War Remnants Museum, which offers a harrowing perspective on the atrocities that were committed during what Americans refer to as the Vietnam War. A collection a weapons, artifacts and photographs all paint a grim and sobering picture of the horrible things that result from war. This was a no-holds-barred collection, including a few unborn babies preserved in formaldehyde to demonstrate the birth defects caused by agent orange. It was gut wrenching, and even though I wasn't even alive when it all happened, made me feel guilty just for being an American.

We decided that we needed to clear our heads from the weighty content of that days activities, and went for massages as the local blind massage school. For around 4-5 dollars, you can get a professional quality, muscle-melting massage from a blind masseur, and all the profits go to maintaining the program which supports the blind community- it was good for the body and the soul. On my way out, I passed a hair salon and decided that my thick, curly hair was not cut out for the weather (or the hygiene) that accompanies backpacking in Southeast Asia. The haircut was great, and included a 10 minute shampoo and head massage- all for under 5 bucks. Feeling vastly more relaxed and refreshed, we grabbed dinner and headed back to the hotel for the night.

The next day, we took a tour of the Mekhong Delta (see next post), and returned to HCMH in the evening. We were meeting with a friend-of-a-friend, Trung, who lived in the city and promised to show us around. We ate at a great seafood restaurant, enjoying oysters, crab cakes, and a dish of shrimp surrounded by a ring of fire. It was quite a show. He then brought us to a club, which, as the night went on, rapidly filled up with a young, fast, and beautiful crowd that spent their money liberally on drinks. This was a scene I could not have imagined anywhere else in the country, and further solidified the city's place in my mind as a beacon of rapid growth and modernity. We thanked Trung for showing us the city from a local's perspective, and then went back to our hotel, overstimulated and exhausted at the same time.

Mid-Coast Vietnam

Mid-Coast Vietnam

Ninh Binh:
After a brief stop in Hanoi, we continued out travels south in Vietnam. We took a two-hour bus ride to the town of Ninh Binh, where we would spend the afternoon before taking an overnight sleeper bus. Ninh Binh is a great small town, with very friendly people. We took a quick ride on the back of motorbikes to visit Tam Hoc, known for it's massive rock formations that seem to rise out of the rise paddies. We were running a little behind schedule, but found a small rowboat and two guides (sisters, in fact) to show us around. It was an amazing atmosphere, as we glided through the water, with the sun setting over the craggy rocks. We took an abbreviated version of the tour since we were running late, but the views were breathtaking.


After dinner in Ninh Binh, we took an overnight bus to the town of Hue (Hoo-ay). The bus was quite an experience, involving 13 hours of bumping around in a semi-flat bed, listening to DVDs dubbed in Vietnamese (using only the voice of one middle aged woman for all the characters).

We spilled out of the bus into the streets of Hue, along with loads of other backpackers. Everyone is quick to offer a taxi or a hotel, and will follow you for blocks to get a sale. We quickly walked away from the big group to get our bearings, and eventually found a place to stay that was recommended by the guidebook. Having settled in, we again hopped on the back of some motorbikes (with our guides driving- the roads are a suicidal mess of thousands of motorbikes and trucks going in all directions). We went to Tu Doc tomb, which was a grand collection of buildings, lakes, and monuments, all in honor of one man (who many believed was impotent). It was a very tranquil place, that looked relatively undisturbed and peaceful compared to the hectic city of Hue. We then visited a few pagodas, and worked up an appetite cruising around and holding on for dear life. We stopped for lunch at a restaurant recommended by our guidebook, where we enjoyed a seven course meal, kicked off by an impressive appetizer served up in a pineapple carved to look like a rooster. The entire meal cost just under $10US, and we nearly had to roll ourselves out of the restaurant. That evening, we caught a couple of soccer games at the local stadium (Thailand v. Vietnam and Myanmar v. Singapore). The games were almost as entertaining as the crowd, who were occupied with beating drums, heckling the teams and being disorderly. We were the only two white people around, so we kept a low profile and chatted with locals about the nuances of soccer and inter-country relations for a few hours before heading back to the hotel.

Hoi An:

The next day, we took a relatively quick bus ride down to the town of Hoi An, which is just about halfway down the coast of Vietnam. Hoi An's reputation as a city full of tailors and beautiful architecture held true. As we walked around, it was hard to imagine how you could fit so many tailor shops in one relatively small and quiet town. Ian and I picked a shop at random and placed our orders, quickly getting carried away by how cheap, easy and customizable the clothes were. If you could think it up, they could have it made by the next morning, and perfectly fitted by the afternoon. I managed to get away with only a pair of linen pants, a shirt, and a wool jacket for when I returned home, but given more time I would have needed a few more suitcases for my new wardrobe.

The sea of shops with mannequins displaying their sartorial work in the windows was broken up by some amazing buildings; testaments to the diverse past of Vietnam, they represented architecture from Japan, China and ancient dynasties that had a presence in the area. The buildings have all been wonderfully preserved, and serve as mini museums that both educate and astonish with their historical significance and beauty. We strolled along the narrow streets, poking our heads into the mini factories where the seamstresses worked making the clothes that had been ordered in the various shops (probably the clothes that we had ordered that morning), and meandered back to our hotel, which was an old, charming building constructed with dark wood, and with enough character and decoration to be confused for another architectural museum.

The next day, we left Hoi An to fly out of Da Nang airport. Destination: Ho Chi Minh City.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Sapa Day 2

Sapa continued to be amazing through the second day, as we left in the morning to set out on a trekking tour through the villages and rice terraces just outside of the center of the town. Me, Ian and our guide walked out to the hillsides where the rice was grown, with indigo plants and corn interspersed here and there. As we continued to get deeper into the trek, I knew I was in for something special. We dropped down into a valley where the trail was lined with towering clusters of bamboo trees. We saw some large spiders, a bamboo beetle, and some other unusual and colorful insects. Continuing over a swaying wood bridge over a stream that carved through the bottom of the valley, we then began climbing up through more bamboo groves. After a quick stop for a lunch of egg, cucumber and tomato sandwiches provided by our guide in a wooden shack, we continued through toward the villages that housed members of the indigenous tribes that lived on the hillsides. We took stopped briefly at simple "mills" that were run by the water flowing down the mountains, used by the locals to husk the rice that they harvested. After this, our guide took us to a traditional shack that housed a family from the Black H'Mong tribe. It consisted of little more than worn wooden boards for walls and a tin roof (which were were told was a recently adopted feature). Just outside of the house, we were greeted by the smiling children that lived there, ranging in age from toddlers to about 8 years old. They were curious and very excited to see strange visitors, and clamored to see the pictures of them that we had taken on our digital cameras. They laughed and pointed, and squeezed in around the cameras; they were very friendly and full of joy.

We then continued on through the rest of the village, around which roamed dogs, pigs, ducks, and hens with their chicks. We were also passed by a few of the water buffalo that were used to work the fields. As we passed the villagers threshing rice in the fields, most were quick with a smile and even a "hello". We then visited a stone carving shop, selling solid carved objects with beautiful detailed adornment. The highlight in the center of the room was a 3 foot-tall urn, with ornate handles and carving that took over a year to complete. Revitalized after a quick snack of a bitter orange-like citrus and strong green tea, we continued on out past a few more sparse houses, and took a quick swing on a large bamboo contraption set up outside of a simple guest house. After passing over the stream at the bottom of a second valley, we then made our way to the waiting SUV that our guide had arranged to take us home. The trip back gave us spectacular views of the route we had just hiked, as well as a few harrowing turns on the edge of the mountains. We returned to our hotel exhausted by the beating sun and long hike, but inspired by sights that we had just taken in. After checking out from our hotel, we took a winding van ride back to the train station in Lao Cai, where another overnight train took us back in to Hanoi.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Photos and Map, finally

Note: I've finally uploaded photos, which can be found in a slideshow on the right of the page. You can view the images full size by clicking on the slideshow. I've also inserted a map on the bottom of the page so that you can track my journey. I'll update this as much as possible so keep checking in- You can also be notified of updates automatically by subcribing to the RSS feeds so you don't miss anything. Thanks!

Sapa Day 1

Silver Falls outside of Sapa

Now that I'm back in Hanoi after another overnight train from Sapa, I can finally take some time to reflect on the first few days of the trip. Sapa proved to live up to its reputation of majestic natural beauty and fascinating culture. All over the village, the local "minority population" of indigenous Black H'Mong people go about their business and sell their crafts. The women are dressed in indigo tunics, adorned with bright red, yellow, green and white embroidery, while the men wear more subdued dark outfits with off-white collars. We visited the local market, which was full of all sorts of food, artifacts, clothing and all the necessities and nick-knacks for tourists and locals alike. There are constant offers from the crafts-women to "buy blanket" because they have "best price". This was a good place to hone our haggling skills, and it turns out that threatening to go to the next stall is fairly effective at ending the conversation and getting the price you're looking for. We worked up an appetite walking around for a bit more, and went to a great little restaurant with bamboo-backed menus. We shared what has so far been the best meal since reaching Vietnam, consisting of venison stir fried with lemongrass, and a goose dish with honey served on a hot plate. Leaving behind clean plates, we then ventured out to take a tour of the landscape just outside of Sapa. We hired a tour van with a guide, who took us out to see Silver Falls, an amazing waterfall splashing down into the valley, and then upwards to Tran Ton pass, which is a mountain pass providing spectacular views of the lush forests below. The deep greens contrasting with the blue sky and billowing cloud formations kept us there snapping photos for some time. After returning to Sapa, we had a quick dinner of Pho Bo (beef noodle soup) and then stopped to play a game with some high-school aged guys in the street that involved juggling a shuttlecock-like ejectors like a soccer ball in a circle. We then stopped at Kau Bar to grab a quick beer before returning to the hotel and resting after another long day.

Saturday, September 20, 2008


Last night we came in from Hanoi to Sapa on the overnight train. It was about 10 hours, during which we discussed the US presidential elections with an Australian and spoke French with a big tour group that was filling up the cabins adjacent to ours. We got into the train station at around 6AM and took a long winding bus ride to the village of Sapa. We drove through some amazing scenery, sharing a van with an Austrian, a couple from France and some Vietnemese. Along the way, the scenery was breathtaking. We drovethrough lush valleys, with rows and rows of rice terraces lining the hillsides. We began to see signs of the indigenous populations working alongside the roads, carrying baskets of good or working in the fields. The bus ride was about 2 hours, with slight interruptions provided by one passenger getting car sick, and a quick roadblock provided by some of the cattle that roam around the villages. Once arrived in Sapa we got a great room with a view over the mountains ($4), and are now planning our day in hopes of seeing as much of the area as possible. I'm looking forward to being out of the bustle of Hanoi and relaxing.

Good Mooooorning Vietnam!

I made it!
After about 30 hours of travel, including short layovers in L.A. and Seoul, we finally got into Hanoi at about 10pm local time last night. We're staying in a nice, small hotel in the "old quarter" and spent the morning walking around Hanoi to get a feel for the city. We visited the Ho Chi Minh museum and mausoleum, which had many historic documents and artifacts, including the communist leader's dumbbells that he used for working out. Hanoi is a wonderful, busy and cacophonous city, with scooters and cars zooming down the narrow streets in droves. This makes crossing the street not unlike playing a game of Frogger at the advanced levels. As expected, it's hot and muggy, with a heat index around 97 degrees. The people have been very friendly, and many of them relish an opportunity to work on their English. I was even greeted by a smiling toddler who waved "hi" and 'bye" to me, putting my non-existent Vietnamese language skills to shame. We are now checking out of the hotel as I type, and heading out to grab some lunch- I'm looking forward to my first authentic pho! After that, we're going to grab an overnight train to Sapa, a majestic village in North Vietnam with a significant indigenous population. I will try to upload some photos when I get a little more time at a computer. Until then, Tam biet!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

T minus 2 days

As I sit on the edge of my bed typing this, it's finally starting to hit me. I'm looking at my pack, with a few things strewn about my room, and realizing that I fly out of Boston in about 33 hours. I've been doing the last bits of preparation during my final full day in Maine before taking the train down to Boston tomorrow afternoon. I've done what I can to get things ready before I leave: My mail is being forwarded to my parents' house, I have my vaccines and medicines in order, and I've hopefully bought and packed everything I'll need to start. I'm also wrapping up my law school applications, so that I'll have minimal work to do when the application season opens on October 1st. It's been quite an experience already being in Maine; I feel as if I'm just hitting the reset button on my life. No more alarm clocks, no more Mondays (or Fridays, for that matter), with literally the entire world open to me. I must admit, though, that as liberating as the past 2 weeks have been since I left Boston and my job as a paralegal, it's taking a lot of adjustment in order to cope with these overwhelming changes.

I made my last round of goodbyes today, visiting friends and their families that I haven't seen since I left Biddeford, ME to go work in Boston over 3 years ago. Over the past few weeks, I've been going through this with people I've known all my life, and also with people that I've only recently met. It certainly puts things in perspective, and each time that I tell them my plans (or lack thereof) it all sounds a little crazy, even to me. But, it's also reassuring to know that I have so many great people that are behind me as I set off to the unknown.

(Hector the cat is helping me pack)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Getting Ready

It's official. Tickets have been purchased. I will be flying into Hanoi, Vietnam on September 19, after 26 or so hours that will take me from Boston, through LA and Seoul, Korea, finally landing in Hanoi. My good friend from Vassar, Ian, will be joining me for the first leg of my trip. Having someone to talk to and read my guidebooks with should take the edge off of the lengthy flight.
I've slowly been filling my pack with my travel supplies to get an idea of how much I'll be lugging around. So far, so good; I've managed to avoid the hereditary instinct to accumulate unnecessary junk. We'll see how long this lasts.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Hi Everyone,

Here is my travel blog. I've set this up as a way to keep everyone informed about my adventures as I do a little soul-searching in Southeast Asia. Over the course of my travels, I'll update this page with the latest stories and pictures. I'll try to be consistent with my posts, depending on the time and technology that's available.

Thanks for reading!