Sunday, May 27, 2007

Not too long in Halong Bay

After meeting up with Alison and her friends and spending a couple days regrouping in Hanoi, we all signed up to take a tour to Halong Bay. For those of you who don't know, Halong Bay is the bay that springs to everyones mind when they think of Southeast Asian coastlines. Giant rocky islands rise from the water, their gray stone surfaces covered with lush green plant life.

Unfortunately, since Sarah and I leave for India on the 29th, and most of the rest of the gang heads on to other destinations on that same day, we only had time to make a one night trip.

So, the seven of us loaded into a van with our guide, driver, and a half dozen other travelers, and after a quick three hour drive (its odd that I think of 3 hours as "quick" these days), we'd arrived at the city of Halong.

Without wasting any time, the guide led the rest of us onto the large boat which would serve as both our mobile base camp and hotel for the next 24 hours. Following a steady stream of similar tour boats, we wound our way into the maze of Halong's islands.

The gang boards the boat (Alison's taking the picture, not sure where Brian is).

They are, quite simply, stunning. As I said above, everyone has at least seen a picture of Halong Bay, its island seastacks stretching across the horizon and fading into the atmosphere (usually photographed at sunrise or sunset). But still, those photos can't quick prepare you for the reality of seeing the islands rising above you spreading out as far as the eye can see.

Entering one of many channels in the Bay.

Another tourist ship, or junk, sails by in front of the Halong horizon.

The unreal coastline of one of Halong's countless islands.

After sitting on the deck and just admiring the view for an hour or so, our first stop was a massive cave in one of the islands. At first, I thought I would rather just stay on the boat and soak in the atmosphere, but the caves were actually very impressive. Huge and organic looking, illuminated by psychedelic lights, each chamber seemed larger and more impressive than the previous.

The caves.

Plus, the cool cave air proved to be pleasant break from the hot and humid air which lurked outside.

After exploring the caved, it was time for some sea kayaking. And, lets just say that sea kayaking in Vietnam is an entirely different affair than sea kayaking in New Zealand. Before kayaking in New Zealand, the guide took us through roughly an hour or safety training, before loading us into our clean state-of-the-art kayaks. In Halong Bay, by contrast, the guide merely instructed us to "get in" before pushing us off to fend for ourselves.

Scrambling to follow after our guides kayak, he lead our group through a rocking tunnel and into a closed in inlet. Sitting in the middle of the inlet, Sarah and I stared around wide eyed at the rocks rising above us and the jungle sounds echoing down toward us. Sarah rightly observed: "I'm just trying to take it all in while I can."

After a short time there, it was back to our boat. We were then taken to a small sandy beach, where we were allowed to frolic for a short bit. Since it was actually getting late in the day, and starting to cool off (by Vietnam standards), Sarah decided to sit on the shore and talk with Alison. But, realizing I'd been in Vietnam for a month, and not gone swimming, I waded in for a short bit.

Back on the boat again, a few of the other guys in the group decided to dive off the edge of it. But, Sarah and I were happy at that point to just watch them. Then, it was on to dinner, and spending the rest of the evenig sipping beer, talking and relazing in the rooftop deck of our boat.

The boat only had a limited number of double bed rooms, but luckily Sarah and I got one. It was a small, yet charming corner room that was everything you could hope for in a tour like this.

Well, until the fan went out at 5am, and the slow morning heat started to creep in.

The next morning, we awoke early (partially because the heat) and ate breakfast. Then, the members of our tour lucky enough to be spending another night in Halong Bay split off from our group to do a trek.

The remainder of our group, plus a few new members that had been grafted on from another tour group, were then taken to another bay, where the boat anchored and we were allowed to spend an hour or so diving from the top of the boat.

Now, let me first start by saying that the boat is rather tall. And it's roof is easily two stories up. But, getting over our initial trepidation, Sarah and I decided to take the plunge. I mean, how often do you get the opportunity to jump off a Chinese-style junk into the emerald blue waters of Halong Bay, right?

Our first jumps both went well. Sarah jumping easily into the water with the casualness of someone who spent seven years working as a life guard. I followed, plunging into the water like a needle.

Yay! Good jump honey!

Encouraged by our first jump, we decided to do another. This time though, we decided to jump together. And Alison would take a picture. it would be the perfect piece to put in our blog: Sarah and I leaping from a boat together, the beauty of Halong Bay surrounding us. Below is the picture that Alison took, let me know if you notice anything wrong with it.

Let me first start by saying that the ledge we were jumping off was really slick. Let me follow up by saying that, when I hit the water, fifteen-odd feet below, I was effectively doing a reverse belly-flop. And, while it's obvious that I survived... let's just say it was a less-than-comfortable experience. Actually, the next picture probably conveys that better than words could:

Anyhow, we were done diving for the day.

Soon, we were back on land again. Our tour of Halong Bay sadly already over. Sarah and I both agreed that we could have easily spent at least another day there, and that it was truly one of the highlights of the trip.

Now, we are back in Hanoi. Tonight we celebrate Alison's Birthday (Happy Birthday Alison!), then tomorrow we take care of errands before heading out to India on Tuesday.

Hanoi and Other Vietnamese Musings

After a 13-hour train ride (from 8AM until 9PM, but far better than a long bus ride), Tyler and I arrived in Ha Noi, the capitol of Vietnam. We knew it was the second largest city in Vietnam and the capitol, but it was a bit of a shock to the system after a few weeks in the Highland and the smaller towns of Hoi An and Hue on the coast.

The train was an interesting journey in itself. As I mentioned about our train ride from Ho Chi Minh City to Nha Trang, few tourists seem to take the train. Though we saw another couple and a grumpy older British woman in the station, we seemed to be the only foreigners in our car. Most of our car mates didn't seem to take much mind of us at all, so we settled in for the long ride. Because we hadn't seen any food cars or food service on our last train, we stocked up on food for the journey--baguettes with Laughing Cow cheese (the only cheese in Vietnam, it seems), Ritz crackers, some Pringles (they seem to have a bigger international presence than a domestic one--they are everywhere, and many travellers' salvation when they can't handle local food), and some local candy I bought at the train station. Most of the day was spent napping, looking out the window, snacking, watching incomprehensible (and extremely bad) Rail TV, including a dubbed version of Casablanca, and staring out the window at the countryside. Miles and miles and hours and hours of rice fields, mostly. However, near the end of journey, a young-looking guy came and asked if we had a pen he could borrow. A few minutes after bringing it back, he came to ask for it again, and we started talking. He was from Hanoi, 22-years-old, and borrowing the pen for his younger brother who was trying to hit on some girls on the train. It was nice to get to talk to a local and find out what the "must-dos" should be, how much it should cost to get from the train station to the Old Quarter, our neighborhood, and such. Before we parted ways, he handed us some small packages of banana leaves tied up with straw. We'd seen them all over Vietnam, and one of our tour guides had told us it was some kind of preserved pork meat. (When we opened them later, the smell kept us from trying this particular delicacy.)

Hanoi is an interesting city--very dense. On our first morning, we walked about ten minutes to a lake in the center of town and ended up feeling like we'd finished a marathon. The sidewalks are full to the gills with parked motorbikes, storefronts, construction sites, sidewalk food venders, and women selling fruit. But walking on the edge of the street means keeping a constant eye out for swerving motorbikes, cars, bikes, and cyclos. And it's been really hot, which only made it that more exhausting.

Typical Hanoi Street Scene

But occasionally we get a chance to look up from watching our step to look up and see huge trees and grand facades that give resonance to the name, "Old Quarter."

Huge tree growing out of the sidewalk. Many of these have small alters or clusters of incense sticks stuck into the crevices.

The kind of building we expected to see more of in the Old Quarter (but that's probably because we're mostly looking at our feet)

We were also excited about Hanoi because we were meeting up again with our friend Alison and some of her friends from Portland who have been travelling in Vietnam. However, we haven't been great sightseers in Hanoi. Between the heat and some general travel fatigue, we've had a few highlights here, but probably left much of the city unexplored.

There is a man-made lake in the center of town with a famous temple on it. This is the vibrant red bridge leading to the temple.

This is a giant preserved tortoise on the temple island. They are believed to still live in the lake, and play an important role in a local legend about a king and a magic sword.

One highlight we don't have photographed was taking in a show at the Water Puppet theatre. This type of theatre began in the north, probably by farmers in the rice paddies. They crafted wooden puppets that they maneuver on the water from behind a screen while a group of musicians play along live. Many of the skits represent scenes from daily life. My favorite was a child playing a flute on the back of a swimming water buffalo. There were also vignettes of fishing, herding ducks and protecting them from a fox, and fishing for frogs. There were also scenes with supernatural creatures--dragons, phoenixes, fairies--as well as an interpretation of the above-mentioned encounter between the king and the tortoise with the sword. There were pyrotechnics and what had to be amazing choreography behind the screens to create movements that seemed so effortless and real. It seemed as though real live frogs and fishing were diving around in the water! We only wished there had been more children in the audience, as I think they would really enjoy it. Instead, we had a group of older Vietnamese women sitting behind us who talked, laughed, and were completely into the show sitting behind us. Perhaps they remember shows from their youth?

The only thing we may miss in Hanoi that we would like to see is the mausoleum containing Ho Chi Minh's body that's been preserved a la Lenin (though he requested cremation). Every Vietnamese person who has mentioned it always talks in hushed and hugely reverential tones about seeing him. But it's closed on Friday and Monday, and we've been away over the weekend.

We leave Tuesday (the 29th) for India. As those of you keeping track of our itinerary may have noticed, we ended up having to cut Laos. It was a tough decision--we really wanted to go--but after our sprint through Cambodia (six days, with as many spent travelling as being there)--and general travel fatigue, we decided we'd rather really enjoy Vietnam more fully than try and fit in a third country. Like everywhere we've been, we always wish we had twice as much time, so we'll just have to come back to northern Vietnam and Laos another time. But since we did have three weeks in this country, I thought I'd share a few general observations about Vietnam that haven't made it into other posts.

We've already mentioned the high amount of cottage-industry level production throughout Vietnam, but in both the rural and urban parts of the country, most people live where they work, with a storefront built out front, and living quarters behind and above. If you need to go to the bathroom at a family-run restaurant or streetside vendor, you usually walk through the kitchen, past someone taking an afternoon nap, and go to the family's bathroom where there are toiletries and sometimes laundry.

Marriage and family are very important to people. Many people marry fast and have children straightaway, so our current status is often a bit confounding. A typical conversation:

"Oh, you're here together. Are you married?"
"Yes," show our left hands.
"Oh, on your honeymoon!"
"No, we've been married almost two years."
"Oh, so you're on vacation away from your kids!"
"No, no kids yet. After the trip."
Look of confusion, sometimes mixed with a bit of pity. "But married people having children makes everyone happy!"

While marriage and family is important, people here often have to spend lots of time away from their family to make a living. All of the drivers on our Easy Rider tour were married with young kids, and each of them seemed to have one day in the morning when they admitted to not sleeping well because they "remembered my wife and kids." But when you ask them about being away, they just see it as a fact of life. To their advantage, though, is the usually multi-generational family life, with grandparents, siblings and other adults living together or close together, each helping to pull the weight of making money and caring for family members.

There are about four channels most Vietnamese families get: VT1, VT2, VT3 and apparently the Cartoon Network. They often show American movies on the national channels, but they are always dubbed. By one women. In a monotone voice. Since being here, we watched Star Wars to her, and Casablanca on the train was the same way. When Tyler had his beard trimmed in Nha Trang, the salon had a TV on with one of the Terminator movies on. I laughed to hear this disembodied Vietnamese woman's voice say, "Hasta la vista, [word in Vietnamese for "baby"]."

We've really loved our time here. I don't know if it's because Tyler and I have both travelled in Southeast Asia before, but we do have some kind of affinity to this part of the world. And this month seems to have passed the most quickly of all so far. Now we're off to India!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A pleasant Hue

After spending several days in Hoi An, getting clothes tailored and wandering its lantern-lit streets, we decided to move on up the coast. We're supposed to meet Alison again in Hanoi in several days, and we still have a long way to go.

But, instead of covering the distance in one long stretch, we decided to break it up by stopping in Hue for a day. So, rising bright and early, we hoped on a bus for the four hour ride from Hoi An to Hue. Quickly, we realized that the trip would probably only be an hour or two, except the bus spent half the time in HoiAn (and then later Danang) driving in circles and picking up tourists from guesthouses. In addition, the driver seemed to live in fear of third gear, so we slowly chugged up the road at a breakneck 40 kilometers an hour.

We eventually did arrive in Hue though, and quickly found a guesthouse. Weaving through a maze of touts, we made our way down a alley to the Mimosa Guesthouse, which was recommended by Lonely Planet. Standing outside it though, we realized it was a little shabbier looking than we'd hoped.But, before I could propose a pla of action, Sarah turned around, pointed across the alley to a clean, quiet, guesthouse surrounded by a lush garden. "How about there?"

So, soon we were checked into that guesthouse, and had even arranged a motorcycle tour for the next day.

So, with the (hottest part of the) afteroon still ahead of us, we decided to hike to Palace. Hue used to be the ancient capital of Vietnam. Today, the massive, sprawling palace serves as a museum, but has also taken on a run-daown and over-grown quality not unlike an Asian Grey Gardens.

The main gate to the Palace
Another gate.
A courtyard. Much of the place was actually in some stage of remodel or disrepair... we only took pictures of the nice stuff though.

Still, there was a ramshakle beauty to the place, and Sarah and I found ourselves wandering the grounds for sometime. Taking in the aging buildings and drinking our way through bottle after oversized bottle of water.

The next morning, we ate breakfast and met up withour moped drivers for our day tour of Hue. First up, a Buddhist Monestary on the outskirts of town to watch their morning chanting.

The monks preform their morning rituals. (And try to ignore the tourists in the background.)

Now, say what you will about people who listen to CDs like Chant, but regardless of the religious denomination or system, real chanting is almost always spellbinding. And the six Buddhist monks we watched perform their morning ritual were no exception. With no more than their voices and several bells, they wove a sonic tapestry ("Sonic tapestry?" Cliched, right?) that left you dazed when it was over. Amazing stuff.

Afterward, our guide talked to us a bit, clarifying the differences between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism as we wandered the monestary grounds.

Then, it was back on the bikes and down the road a bit to a roadside shop where they made incense. What's odd in Vietnam is that often the tours take us to places where they make uninteresting things (A brick factory. A rice noodle factory. A black pepper farm.) and it ended up being actually pretty interesting to see how they are made. And, like the other places we've visited, incense making is actually kind of cool. And colorful.

Sarah tries her hand at making incense.
Incense sticks drying in the sun. Colorful, no?

A short drive down the road some more, and we found ourselves on a bluff overlooking the Perfume River. Surrounding us were short green pine trees and cement structures that I first thought were the pedestals of long lost statues. Then, our guide point out to us what they really were: Bullet hole riddled bunkers. Leftover from the war. Apparently, the spot had been a key military location for the US forces because it provided a view of the surrounding area, and easy access to the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the East. Like the Killing Fields in Cambodia, both Sarah and I were struck by how peaceful the location was, if you were able to out aside the horrors and violence that had taken place there years ago.

An old US bunker standing on an otherwise idyllic bluff.

Our next stop was Emporer Tu Doc's Tomb. Since Hue had been the capital at one point, there are a number of royal tombs scatteredaround the area. But, since the majority charge 55,000 Dong (about $3.50 US... which is expensive here) a person to get in, we opted to only check outtheone our guide thought was the best.

Statues or the Emporer's Mandarin (Advisors), a horse (with a little kid on it) and an Elephant. The tombs were supposed to be recreations of the ruler's life.
The giant slab that Sarah's standing in front of is a "self-critical autobiography" written by the Emporer. One wonders what the Emporer criticized himself about?
The river that winds through the complex. The little white dot to the left is me.

Apparently, at that time, the Emporers would build their tombs why they were alive, and then sort of use them as a second palace. A place to get awayfor a bit, and write some poetry, or whatever it is Vietnamese Emporers do with their free time (beyond collecting concubines). So, in addition to his actual tomb, the tomb of his first wife, and the tomb of his adopted son, the grounds also contained a man-made lake (with an island, naturally) and stream system, a pavilion or two, a residence of the Emporer and his Concubines and a couple of temples. Like the Palace, the entire tomb complex had a sort of rundown charm, and the scale of it was impressive.

After that, our guide hiked us through some bushes to where another smaller tomb lay practically hidden. Apparently, this other tomb was for an Emporer who only ruled for a couple years and never got around to building his own complex. As a result it was smaller, and tourists rarely visited it. Which actually worked to our advantage, because it was still impressive and beautiful. But, aside from a couple of farmers resting in the shade, it empty except for us.

If you look closely, you can see the farmers in the shadows.

Then, it was back on the bike, for a longer drive, which included a very narrow bridge crossing, eventually ending at a Pagoda. Unfortunately, the main temple portion was being refurbished. But, we wre still able to see the Pagoda itself and several of the smaller structures around it.

The Pagoda. You know what the people who made this pagoda/Angkor Wat/pick-the-ruin-of-your-choice are overly fond of? Stairs.

Our final, long, moped ride took us to a covered bridge in the countryside outside of Hue. It had been built in 1776 by a wealthy old woman who had no heirs and decided to spend her money to build a bridge to allow the farmers an easier way to reach the city. In addition, it provides a place for them to restfrom the sun on a hot day, or take shelter froma storm. Over 200 years later, the bridge was still in amazing condition. And, I'm sure the old woman would be happy to see people stil taking a break in its shade... next to the small shrine in her honor.

The ride out to the bridge. The entire road was covered with drifts of hay, drying in the sun.
The bridge. Again, ifyou look close, you can see farmers resting in the shadows.

Sarah and I appreciated this story, over a glass of sugarcane juice and winter melon tea; watching giant, puffs of cotton-tree seeds roll by like gerbil-sized sheep. Then our guides took us back to our guesthouse. Not a bad way to spend half a day.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Hoi An at Night

Normally, Tyler and I leave the camera home at night. We figure we don't need to encourage any pickpocketing or other nefarious activities, and then we can just relax and enjoy our evening. On our second-to-last night in Hoi An, though, I fell in love with the look of the old town at night--lots of glowing lanterns, and the green and yellow colors had a really vintage feel. So we brought out the camer and experiemented. Here are a few favorites. (You'll also probably understand why we decided to buy and ship home a few lanterns for a future backyard!)

Sunset and lanterns

Restaurants reflecting in the river

Buildings on the other side of the river

Street they sell lots of lanterns on

Cafe across from the patisserie where we grabbed some dessert. We loved the colors, though the red of the waitresses dresses doesn't show as well as I'd hoped

PS Thanks to Tyler's friend and co-worker Brian and his wife Kim who gave us a little travel tripod as a going away present. Couldn't take night shots without it!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Motorcycle Diaries Part II

Tyler took on the herculean task of describing our five days with the Easy Rider crew. He did a fantastic job. I just wanted to share a few more images and thoughts from that part of our journey.

Highlands Taxis

Highlands Taxi Drivers

At one village, we stopped to take a closer look at a rice field. These two boys in a "Highlands taxi" stopped to watch us with some interest. I was somewhat fascinated by these "vehicles." They look like a wagon connected to a lawn mower, and you see them transporting people, animals, agricultural products--usually some combination of all three.

The driver looks about 13, but I've learned that might well mean he's 18 or 19. Young people in Vietnam seem to look extraordinarily young for a long time. A group of giggling girls I took for 13 were 18. Children who look too young to be walking around alone are six or seven. They were nice enough to let us take their picture and expressed some embarrassment and pride at the result.

At the same time, we proved photo-worthy, when I'm guessing what was a local tourist (nice clothes, camera) took a picture of us looking at the rice. I imagine now there's a family in Saigon or Hanoi looking through a family member's pictures saying, "Look! White people looking at rice! How funny!"

Rice Harvest

Rice drying in the sun

Rice threshing machine

It was rice harvest time in the Highlands during our motorbike tour, and everywhere we went, we saw golden sheets of rice in the sun--sometimes on tarps, sometimes on concrete areas in front of a house, sometimes even just directly on the pavement. We also saw many portable threshing machines for separating the grains from the grass, which is then used to feed livestock. Basically, people shove the harvested grass and grain into the machine, the hay flies out one side, and the rice falls down onto the ground and is gathered into sacks. While in Vietnam, we've managed to see the entire process of rice production: growing in the field, being harvested, dried, threshed, husked and made into rice noodles.

Reminders of War

Bombed out church, built by the French, left standing

Regional War Memorial

Another Regional War Memorial

As in the US, the war in Vietnam (referred to as the "American War" or "American Interference") is still very present. Almost every town we went through had some kind of large monument, listing those killed during that time. Public murals and statues in large roundabouts also seemed to always reference the difficult past the Vietnamese have had, fighting the Chinese, the French, and Americans. However, we never experienced any animosity as Americans.

Experiencing it as Americans--though Americans too young to have been directly involved--was a strange and interesting experience. Sometimes when riding through the jungle or being on a boat in the Mekong, I would have a strange sense of deja vu, only to realize that some of the landscape feels so familiar because of movies about the Vietnam War. Horrible things happened here, but we also have the awareness of the wounds that are still sometimes close to the surface for Americans today. I don't think I've sorted all my thoughts about it completely. I guess war is just terrible and unfortunate, for both sides/countries/people involved.


Uncle Ho on a billboard

Vietnamese Flag paraphenalia

One of the many posters about voting in the national election on May 20th

Ho Chi Minh and red banners with the flag's yellow star or communist hammer and sickle are omniopresent. In some villages, every single house was sporting a flag. Every major thoroughfare was filled with banners, posters and billboards, exhorting people to vote, only have one or two children, progress towards modernity, and many other things I could only guess at as we rode by. The stylized images of people--workers, soldiers, scientists, minority people--fascinated me, and they were everywhere. I wish I could have gotten many more photos of them. It seems like they must have one Communist-era artist slaving away somewhere making all of these.

A Few More Images

There are 50+ different minority groups in the Highlands, and many of them build meeting houses similar to this, with soaring roofs that seem to reach at least two stories into the sky.

Water buffalo, wallowing in the mud. According to Dao, they work hard when they're cool, but they're useless when hot.

This picture just captures what much of the journey looked like--wide open skies, green fields on other side, clouds that mostly threatened to rain but only did on our first and last days....