Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Rainy Week Blues

Goddamn rain. It's been raining in Vietnam for the past seven days! Although I can't really complain too much, I'm not on Koh Samui up to my chest in floodwater. I heard from quite a few people that the weather in North Vietnam was a lot cooler than the south, but I never expected it to be this cool. In Hoi An it wasn't bad, probably around eighteen degrees C, but here in Hue, it's maybe around seven or eight degrees. Thankfully while digging around in my bag the other day I stumbled upon my toque that I thought I had shipped home. I haven't had to break that thing out since I was on top of Gokyo Ri, at fifty three hundred meters!

It's hard not to say that the rain has been putting a damp on things. It really sucks when I'm out sightseeing and not able to use my SLR, when I know I would be able to get some really good pictures. Instead I'm forced to use my shit-ass waterproof point and shoot. While I'm on that topic, Olympus gets a thumbs down for making the Tough 8010, it's an abortion.

Yesterday Nick, Ben and I strolled around the Purple Palace, former home of the Nguyen Emperors. It was a pretty cool sight, the moats and walls around the Citadel are pretty impressive. The coolest things about all of these palaces around here are the interiors. They're always made out of dark, polished wood, with vaulted ceilings, with the joists exposed. It's gives the rooms a dark, cultured library type look. Today we did a day tour to the Emperor's Tombs, which included a boat ride up the Perfume River to a Buddhist pagoda. Too bad I was hung over and tired...

Tomorrow, to Hanoi!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Kickin' It Old Town

After getting my passport back with a nice, shiny new Chinese visa in it, I bailed out of the rainy boredom of Nha Trang and headed to Hoi An on the night bus. That in itself was an interesting experience. I was jammed in the back with four other guys, sleeping elbow to elbow with each other, myself sandwiched in the middle. No, there was no spooning. What there was a lot of was being ejected out of our seats whenever the bus hit a bump. Thank God for Dramamine.

Hoi An itself is a really pleasant city. The old town is full of old buildings left over from the French colonial period, and is very photogenic. Unfortunately I couldn't take full advantage of that since it was raining and cloudy the whole time. Most people come to this town to get clothes made at one of the hundreds of tailors here. I joined those ranks and am now the proud owner of a kick ass new suit! I paid a little more than I expected to: $230 for a two piece suit and a shirt. It was well worth it though, the suit is made from a high quality fabric and would have cost around $600 back home, I'm guessing. And you can't put a price on good looks...

Yesterday marked my first Vietnamese motorcycle experience. Two British guys I've been hanging out with (Nick and Ben) and I rented some scooters and headed out to some old ruins about thirty five kilometers out of town. I expected the ride to be totally insane from what I've seen on Vietnamese roads so far, but it was actually a lot of fun, and my only near misses were animals induced; a cow ran out in front of me and I almost took a pigeon to the face. The funniest part of the whole ride was weaving in and out of the billions of bicycles on the street. It's tough to paint a picture of it, but try and imagine hundreds of people on bicycles riding on the road like they're cars, and then imagine the hundreds of motorcycles trying to negotiate them, and then imagine a bus flying like a bat out of hell being thrown into the mix. Those are Vietnamese roads.

Now the two Brits and I head up to Hue, not on a sleeper bus.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Change of Scenery

Blogger finally came back online today, so now I can do up another post. Where do I begin? How about with my first day in Dalat. I arrived there mid afternoon to rainy skies. It was a different type of scenery, one of many kinds I have seen in Vietnam. This country is turning out to be a lot more geographically diverse than I imagined it would be. I've gone from arid farmland near Pleiku to jungle in Nha Trang, then to desert in Mui Ne, and now to pine covered mountains around Dalat.

On first glance Dalat seemed like a nice city that would be fun to hang around in, but once a girl I met on the bus and I went out to search for a restaurant, it became more of a chore than anything. It literally took us an hour to find a place to sit down for a meal, then another hour to find and walk back to our hotel, all courtesy of Dalat's extremely messed up road system. The next day was the same sort of deal, but this time it was half an hour to find an internet cafe. By that point my mind was made up to leave the following morning.

All Dalat wasn't bad though. I did find some silver lining in the cloud, before they poured rain on the Dalat countryside. I took a cable car to the other end of the valley, where I found a nicely manicured Buddhist Temple, and a lake below it. It was a nice place to take an afternoon stroll. The rain that fell just before I arrived filled the forest with a nice smell of pine. It reminded me of hiking in the Rockies back home, and instantly made me homesick. It's amazing how one smell or sight can trigger memories and feelings like that. It made me fell like the time is coming for a little change of scenery. I do miss being among pine-covered mountains, and I'm hoping China can provide that change for me.

And now I'm back in Nha Trang. I arrived yesterday at noon and immediately headed for the beach to meet up with some friends from Thailand. The sunny weather has run out though, and today I'm bored out of my skull; rain doesn't do Nha Trang justice. Hopefully tomorrow night I'll be on a night bus to Hoi An to start exploring the north of Vietnam.

Friday, March 18, 2011

It's Great Being a Kid

Because that's exactly how I felt yesterday when we hit up the water park here in Ho Chi Minh City with some friends, Sean and Luke (England), and Kris and Yvette (Holland). We arrived thinking there were only two slides in the whole park, but soon discovered that it was a huge park with a ton of slides in it. They're all insane too, the most intense water slides I've ever been on! Every one of them is built around speed, and today my tail bone and hip are feeling the effects of that. It was just like being a kid again, running around, full of energy and with no regard for personal safety. A couple weird experiences came out of that day too, one of them was me having to drag a Vietnamese girl that couldn't swim back to the shallow end of the pool (not serious, but still weird), and having a Vietnamese father ask Sean and I if we would take one of his baby boys down on the tandem tube slide with us, because him and his wife were only allowed to take one with them. We politely declined. Taking responsibility for a strangers baby on a water slide where two hours earlier Sean and Luke flipped their tube is not in my definition of a good idea.

Today I went on a tour to the Chu Chi Tunnels, about two hours outside of Ho Chi Minh City. I figured I would have a great time since the tunnels were used by Viet Cong fighters in the war, but it was very disappointing. Incredibly touristy (our group had around fourty people) and overly lame, the tour failed to impress me. The only semi-cool thing was crawling around a fourty meter stretch of the tunnels. Apparently you can go one hundred meters, but I made the mistake of following some people and ended up at the exit, unable to turn back. Then we watched an old propaganda film from the war that profiled the tunnels and fighters. It was really funny to see the video glorifying the fighters, one of which was a sixteen year-old girl, when I knew that if she was killed by American soldiers, it would be viewed as an atrocity. This is the funny world we live in.

Tomorrow I stay in Ho Chi Minh City for another day of sightseeing, then the next day it's off to Dalat, a highland city, for some hiking and calm. Then back to Nha Trang, where I go pick up my passport from the travel agent that has caused some delays with it, concerning my Chinese visa. Hopefully within a week all that will be sorted out and I'll be heading north.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Ho Chi Motorcycle!

Well, the end of beach time for a couple months for this guy. The last couple days in Mui Ne were pretty cool, filled with sun-soaking and excellent food. We did a tour to the various sand dunes around town, which was pretty cool, save for the argument I had with my ATV renter when my ATV wouldn't start. Some friends and I had a great fresh sea food dinner last night, complete with a half kilo of fresh bbq'd prawns, fresh crab, noodles, and the most garlicy rice I've ever had in my life. Thank god for toothpaste and hand soap!

Now we're in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. It's quite the contrast from the serenity of Mui Ne. The traffic here is incredible, I've never seen a mass of steel and people quite like I have on the streets of this city. It's literally a constant tide of motorbikes, which make up about 90% of the traffic. Crossing the street can be an endeavour, and I'm a little more weary of it than I was in India. The selection of restaurants looks good, I'm eager to head out for some good cuisine tonight.

We hit up the War History Museum today, which features old equipment and exhibits from the 'American War', which is the Vietnamese term for the Vietnam War. There were a lot of cool machines there, like an old Huey helicopter, a couple M41 tanks, and an old Thunderchief fighter-bomber. The exhibits themselves were pretty cool, the best of them all I thought was the War Correspondent Photography exhibit, which features a ton of photographs from combat photographers killed during the war. There was also an exhibit featuring the use of Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant used during the war. It was pretty graphic, with a collection of pictures of birth defects resulting from exposure to the chemical. An interesting part of it was seeing the perspective of the war from the other side, being the Vietnamese people. The generality of the museum was a little biased, showing the atrocities of the Americans but not really recognizing the casualties inflicted on the South Vietnamese Government.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

That Beach, the One With the Face...

The biggest highlight of the last two days was seeing somebody get robbed on the beach. An English friend, Luke, and I were sitting on the beach when a woman started shouting. We turned around to see her run up to two western guys laying on the beach, yelling that they had been robbed by two young Vietnamese that were handing out bar fliers. They each jumped up an ran after the thieves. One of them caught up to the girl and grabbed his IPhone back from her, but the other guy wasn't so lucky, and his camera was stolen. This was the first time I'd directly seen any form of robbery, and it was a little unsettling. These two punks literally grabbed this stuff inches away from this guys head. It really shows how you have to be vigilant about keeping an eye on your belongings, because it could happen when you least expect it.

So now I'm in a beach town I constantly forget the name of. And I'm going to take the lazy road, not look it up and just throw out a guess: I think it's Mui Ne. I arrived here early this afternoon and checked into a really cool hostel where a few people I met in Nha Trang are staying. We hit the beach to watch a ton of people kite-surfing. There are literally almost a hundred of them along the beach, it's really cool to watch. I'm not sure if I'll try it or not, at $37 dollars an hour that's very expensive in terms of backpacker and SE Asia budgets. Sitting on the beach was an endeavour too, it's so damn windy here it feels like you're being sand blasted, which I can imagine would be a horribly painful way to die. Good thing my hostel has a pool in it...

Friday, March 11, 2011

Mud Men of Nha Trang

I found one of the best ways possible to cure a hangover: mud and mineral spa. On the outskirts of Nha Trang there's a place where you can pay to sit in a mineral mud bath then relax in a thermal hot springs. It was great, except for getting that damn mud in my eyes. Thankfully they're prepared for this and have a clay pot of warm water to rinse with. My skin now feels smooth as a babies ass. And the best part of the day: the sun came out! I had been thinking I was going to bail on Nha Trang and head down to Ho Chi Minh City tomorrow morning, but since the skies cleared I've been reinvigorated and has decided to stay another day. Nha Trang itself is ok, basically a beach community with tons of hotels, restaurants and bars. All in all, not a good place to be keeping up my promise of toning down the drinking. Beer is incredibly cheap here, the most expensive place we found was less than $2 for a bottle. The beach here is pretty decent, not as nice as the ones in Thailand or Cambodia, but it will certainly do. The one different thing is the surf, it's totally insane here! Not in terms of being able to surf it (the waves curl only twenty feet from shore), it's more about when you go swimming you get totally annihilated by the massive waves!

The bus ride down here from Pleiku sure makes me feel sorry for the children that are forced to ride them, being that buses are one of the main modes of transportation in these countries. I remember when I was a kid being in the car for long periods of time would make me eventually car sick, and those were on the long, straight Canadian highways, not these windy, roller coaster-like roads in Vietnam. Ever kid on the bus tossed their cookies at some point in the journey. I feel very lucky that the one next to me didn't choose my leg to barf on.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Northern Thailand and Laos Wrap-Up

Since I didn't do a Northern Thailand Wrap-Up, I'll include it with Laos. Northern Thailand was great, I think overall I ended up liking it more than the south. It was more relaxed and not as full of beach-bumming douchebags. The locals seemed to be more relaxed as well, probably because of the lack of contact with beach-bumming douchebags. The weather was cooler there, the nights in Pai were cool enough to allow you to see your breath. I met a ton of cool people there, notably the group of people in Pai whom I've traveled with and/or met down the road.

The good: Pai. This was by far the best place I visited in Northern Thailand. The heavy reggae presence there made for really chilled out times, notably at the Yellow Sun and Bamboo Bars. I met a lot of great people there and saw some amazing scenery, like the Lod Caves. Ripping around the Pai countryside was definitely a highlight. Chiang Mai was a cool city, a small city with a small town feel to it. The Sunday night market was the best I've seen yet, and even though it was disgusting, I have to put eating the cricket in the good category. Can't forget the cheapest sushi I've ever had, too. I liked the fact that everything in the north is much cheaper than it was in the south. The day tour I did out of Chiang Mai was a highlight, and it marked my first white water rafting adventure.

The bad: The biggest thing that comes to mind was that stupid cab driver that made me miss my train to Kanchanaburi. I really had wanted to go there, but oh well, shit happens I suppose. Other than that the only bad thing I can think of was the bus ride to the Lao border; it's hard to get any sleep in a minibus doing mach one on a mountain rode. All in all, pretty minor.

The costs: Northern Thailand is a little cheaper than the islands, but it still is Thailand. And I still drank a lot.
Total days spent: 14.5
Total money spent: Rougly $570
Total daily expenses: Rougly $500
Average cost per day: Roughly $34

And now for Laos. Laos is an amazing country all around. For being one of the poorest nations in the world, it has so much to offer the traveler. It's a truly wild place with some of the most amazing scenery I've laid eyes on. It can be tough traveling sometimes, and has been for me. The road transportation here was the worst since India, and I managed to get sick again, twice. While not as seemingly poor as India was, you can tell people here work harder to scratch out a living with the constant threat of unexploded bombs lying beneath their feet. That said, overall they are incredibly friendly people, with whom my good experiences far outweigh the bad, and I hope that one day they can be a prosperous nation and enjoy everything we have back home, because they deserve it.

The good: Beer Lao! The Gibbon Experience. I'll never forget ziplining one hundred and fifty meters above the jungle floor. The slowboat to Luang Prabang was an incredibly social environment, especially when the Pai crew broke out a case of beer and some whiskey. The Mekong was full of amazing scenery, making that two day boat ride completely bearable. The waterfall outside of Luang Prabang was also amazing, and made for an amazing day of rope swinging and jumping. And I can't forget to mention the stair party we got going in Luang Prabang. I'm not sure I mentioned it before so basically the lowdown is everything in Luang Prabang closes at 11pm, so the first couple nights we drank on a concrete stairwell by the river with some music. The third night it was up to forty people. Phonsavan was my favourite place, our planned one day turning into four is a testament to that. The countryside around that city made for the best motorcycling I've ever done, and it seemed to always be changing and blowing my mind. Those four days were packed full of some awesome caves, seeing a live unexploded cluster bomb munition, taking in some great panoramas and seeing ancient artifacts. The food must be mentioned, especially in Vientiane, where we found the best food I've eaten in a long time. The Konglor Cave was mind blowing! Relaxing in Pak Beng was a great way to end the Lao leg of my journey.

The bad: Lao was a hard place to travel in. The buses weren't great, they usually were packed completely full of people and cargo, notably my bus ride to Attapeu a few days ago where the isle was lined with giant sucks of God knows what. The long-haul tuk tuks were no better either, being cramped in the back on a bench with twenty-five other people and a goat is not so much fun. On the topic, the day traveling down to Pak Beng was shit. Getting sick in Vang Vieng was no fun either, liquid out both ends for four days will drain anyone. And we can't forget the bedbug saga, which is finally done, thank christ. I've never been so itchy in my life. Well I can't trash Vang Vieng completely, my time there was really dull, my party mood had been drained and given the crowd I was with and the environment I was in it with, I toughed it out.

The costs: Laos was famed to be so much cheaper than Thailand, but I expected it to be much cheaper than it actually was. The Gibbon Experience was a big expense I didn't drink as much this time...
Total days spent: 29
Total money spent: $1173.89 ($42 visa, $309 for the Gibbon Experience, about $37 to ship a package home)
Total daily expenses: Roughly $730
Average cost per day: Roughly $25

I'll apologize if my budgeting it a little vague sometimes, I try to keep track of every penny I spend, but when you're constantly busy it's tough to accurately keep track of every expenditure.

Here I Am, Charlie!

Recap the past few days: relaxing and traveling. Past that first day, Don Det turned out to be pretty great. It's the perfect place to chillax (chilling and relaxing at the same time), and we filled the days with just that. The first day Isaac and I chilled out at a riverside bar and put their hammocks to good use. The second day was also great, we rented some inner tubes and floated down both sides of the island with a cold beer. The sunset has a small sand bar where everyone beaches their tube and kicks back, sharing our travel tales and whatnot. Sadly my dwindling money supply and the lack of ATM's in the area forced me to have to leave a day early.

I chose to go way off the beaten path and cross to Vietnam through Bo Y, a small crossing in the very south of Laos. I figured that way was better for a couple reasons: first, it saved me from a twenty-two hour straight bus ride, and second, it put me as far south in Vietnam as possible, so I don't have to backtrack very far when I make my way to the north of Vietnam and then to China. This decision turned out to be an absolute great one. Like I said, it took me well of the beaten track, away from all the other travelers. I was the only white person on the bus, and only one other person spoke a little English, and trust me, it was an enormous help. When I rolled into Attapeu, where I had to stay the night before heading to Vietnam in the morning, I went to eat at a local soup restaurant, where I sat and had a beer with two Vietnamese guys, all the conversation translated through their friend on the other end of a cell phone. Those kind of experiences are always cool, and sometimes hard to come by on the tourist trail.

In the morning I caught a minibus to the border and made it into Vietnam without a hitch. Another cool experience, one that wouldn't have happened on a regular tourist bus, is having an inclusive lunch with the Vietnamese guys on the bus. It was a huge communal meal of rice, soup, vegetables, some awesome fish, and shrimp (you don't peel them either, they eat them whole, eyes and everything). That cool experience justified my route decision even more. It was cool seeing the sharp scenery change immediately after the border. The thick-forested Lao side turns into bald, semi-arid looking mountains with different kinds of plantations on the sides.

And even more justification: the city of Pleiku is really interesting! I chose to spend a night here and catch the early morning bus to Nha Trang rather than jump right on another one. It's fairly obvious the people here don't see many tourists, hardly anyone speaks English and everyone stares at you, but you get some very friendly smiles and hellos when walking down the street. A really weird experience I had was when I walked by these Honda dealership guys, one of them stroked my forearm, which incredibly creeped me out. I felt this way until another guy did it, but then compared his forearm to mine, which revealed the hilarity; they're fascinated by my hairy arms. Considering that Pleiku doesn't even have a wikitravel page, it really is a cool place to visit for a day. I visited a Buddhist temple today that is BY FAR the nicest one I've visited in my entire trip. It was absolutely incredible, the architecture was amazing, as were the immaculately manicured gardens. It had a Chinese feel to it, I'm thinking it could be a preview to what I'm going to see in that country, and that makes me feel even more stoked to be heading there next month.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Crook-Tuk's Everywhere

Here I am, finally in the Four Thousand Islands after a hellish journey to get there, one of the roughest of my trip so far. We caught the 7am bus out of Savannakhet yesterday, bound for Pakse to change buses for another journey to Pak Beng, the island we were aiming for. The first bus was one of the shittiest I've been on to date, right up there with that hell bus in India from Sunauli to Varanasi. The seats were basically like the kind you would find in a yellow school bus, except they were designed for Lao-sized legs, not North American. My ass was thanking me at the end of the ride.

In Pakse we discovered the only way to get to Don Det was the way our friends told us not to go: by a tuk-tuk like truck. Oh yeah, and we had to ride for thirty minutes hanging on the rear bumper of the tuk tuk to get to the right bus station. So we get in the truck, which seemed fine at first, a little cramped but not too big of a deal. Then they started loading about thirty people into it, cramming us in like sardines. Again, North American sized legs started working against us. Isaac's were basically against his chest. So we say fuck it and climb out, and when I say climb out, we actually climbed out of the side panels. Then an argument with the truck staff ensued when we wanted our bags and they didn't want to get them down. After chasing the truck and a lot more yelling, they cleared a space in the cab and we were able to semi-comfortably sit in it. By this point we were hungry, tired and sweaty and were ready to lose it on someone.

The problems still didn't stop there. When we got to the 'destination' we found out we had to catch another boat to the island, which they wanted an atrocious amount of money for. We bargained, they claimed it was sixteen kilometers, and we settled on a price. The trip was maybe a kilometer, and the guy didn't even take us to where we wanted to go. At this point our opinion of Southern Laos has been soured. Nobody seems helpful, you have to pry information from them, and if they don't understand you, they're likely to turn their backs on you, which brings out the 'punch you in the face' feeling from within me. So far we've met a few more nice locals here in Don Det, and I'm hoping I'll meet more so I can leave this area feeling like it was worth it. As far as Don Det goes, it seems like a really relaxed place, things move pretty slowly here, partially because it's extremely hot during the day. Thankfully the Mekong river is at the doorstep.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Search for Good Sound

I'll address the topic headline first: my quest for a good set of headphones. I lost another pair (my third of the trip) in Vang Vieng, and have been on a quest ever since to find a new, decent sounding pair. I bought a pair in Vang Vieng for about three dollars, and they turned out to be crackily-sounding pieces of shit, and soon were ejected from the window of a bus. Then after hard searching for good ones I found a pair in Vientiane that looked very good, for about seven dollars. Turned out to be shit. Now I'm keeping my eyes peeled and my walkman on me for a good, legit Sony store so I can get a good sounding pair of noise-canceling headphones, which are precious for bus rides. And you can't put a price on good quality sound.

As for the last few days. Yesterday we dragged our butts out of bed at 4am to catch the 5am bus to the Konglor Cave. The drive through Vientiane that morning was pretty cool, seeing the city at its serenity, when the true beauty is at it's most. And I discovered that Vientiane is more modernized than I thought. They have traffic light cameras! After a six hour bus ride and a two hour tuk tuk ride, we made it to the caves and managed to get the last boat ride through. It was incredible. The Konglor Cave is supposedly the biggest cave in the world, and it feels like it. You rip through a good section of it on a motorboat, where they beach it and you walk up a hill with the guide to where the cool stuff begins. Just when you think it's going to be all in the dark, the guide flips a switch and the whole cave is illuminated with flourescent, blue and orange light. The lighting job is absolutely amazing; the blue makes it look like a scene from a science fiction movie, and the orange light that sillouetes the rock formations give you the feel that you're descending into hell. So far this has been the coolest natural thing I've seen other than Mount Everest. It's a little bit of a journey to get there, but well worth the trip.

Today was another long journey by tuk tuk. First was a two hour ride (with twenty four people jammed in a tuk tuk smaller than a minivan) from the caves to a junction town where we caught another four hour tuk tuk to Tha Kaeck were we caught a three hour bus ride to Savannaket, from where I'm typing this email. And in the morning we catch ANOTHER bus to Don Det, a small island in a river delta group known as the Four Thousand Islands.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Three Days In the Decompression Chamber

Vientiane is the perfect place to decompress from Vang Vieng. Rolling in here, I was expecting this place to be like any other third world capital: a dingy shithole. So far Vientiane has impressed. The food here is incredible, none of us had a bad meal the whole time. The noise is minimal, the traffic isn't too bad, most of the city seems pretty well kept and free of stray dogs. There's a good selection of bars and restaurants, as well as a multitude of street food stalls along the riverfront. Sitting here I realized I never really took any pictures of the city, which disappoints me since I'm leaving tomorrow. Next time, I guess.

The last few days have been incredibly chilled. I'm finally feeling normal again, guts and all. I've been using the free wifi in my guest house liberally, catching up on a little picture uploading. Bob and Terry left a couple days ago to check out the Konglor cave, the biggest in the world, where Isaac and I are headed tomorrow. I managed to get a lot of stuff done too. I picked up my passport with my new Vietnamese tourist visa, which starts on the 9th. I also managed to get a package shipped home too!

On the bad note, it's an ongoing saga with bedbugs still. On the second night I discovered that this room has them, so now I've chosen to sleep on the floor rather than continue to be bit by those little bastards. It's made me a little more paranoid now, I'm really hoping I won't be carrying them around. I'm sure it's fine, since they sprayed out my bag and cleaned my clothes in Vang Vieng, but I'm a little nervous. Everyone who reads this should cross their fingers for me. A bit of collateral damage from this saga is that when the staff at the last hotel cleaned my day pack out, they took all the beer bottle caps I had been collecting as well as some Nepali and Indian coins I had in there. The bottle caps aren't too big of a deal, I've already managed to replace two of the three of them, but I'm pissed off about the coins. Hopefully karma keeps those beg bugs infesting that hotel for a long time.