Thursday, April 21, 2011

Good Morning Vietnam!

After so many night trains I've had several opportunities to see Vietnam in the early morning.  The last few we were in Sapa, which is up in the mountains of Northern Vietnam (near the Chinese border).  The rice fields and mountains were amazing.  The first morning we arrived it was very foggy and unfortunately it didn't clear much as the day went on.  However, it didn't detract from the scenery, in fact it may have actually added to it's magical feel.  We weren't here in time for the rice planting or harvesting but the fields were filled with water in preparation.  Next month the fields will be planted with their only crop of rice for the year.  The families will depend on it to survive over the next 12 months.

It was incredible to see how the communities lived and interacted with the tourists that were everywhere.  This is the first area we've visited where the communities and culture still seemed to be similar to the way it's always been, with the exception of the little tribal ladies that doubled the size of our trekking group.  They followed us on our 10km walk so that they could offer us their wares at the end.  It was difficult to say "no" after you have bonded with them all day.  (Well, hard to say no if you aren't a cold-hearted person without any money like me).

Mom and "Black Shadow" with the gift
On the train ride back from Sapa we were in a berth with two men from China (one was from an area near Tibet and the other was Mongolian).  They were both in Sapa as part of a Unicef program for minority Chinese.  They were lovely people and the man from the Tibetan area was apparently known for a few movies as well as for his calligraphy and art.  After a short discussion he offered us a gift of a book on himself and his work as well as a piece of his artwork.  It's so nice when the simplest gifts are the ones that mean the most at the end of the trip.  It also made the snoring that night from the Mongolian man a bit easier to take (it was so loud that I could still hear it through my earplugs and over the sound of the train - I slept very little).

We are in Hanoi today and then we take another night train into China tonight.  I'm hoping we have quieter companions this time.  As we prepare for the trip I'm starting to realize all of the changes that I will have to adjust to when we leave Vietnam.  For instance, I don't expect to be able to access my google account or Facebook and I'm not sure if I will have access to my blog or Skype either.  It could be an interesting visit.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Taste of the High Life

I've just finished a 2 night/3 day cruise on Halong Bay and between this and Hoi An, I'm getting a bit spoiled in Asia (of course there are always things to bring me back to reality).

Enjoying China Beach, Hoi An, Vietnam
Hoi An, Vietnam sits just south of the DMZ in Vietnam and near Danang.  The small French influenced city has become quite the tourist spot particularly for their tailors.  Each street in the village center is lined with tailors and shoe shops galore, in fact it was harder to find a place to eat than find a place to have clothes or shoes custom made.

With only two nights planned for Hoi An, and full backpacks, we weren't going to have anything made...or at least that was the plan.  But the shops are just too tempting and the fabrics and designs just too alluring. I've never had anything made for me personally and I've always found it nearly impossible to find dresses.  The seeds started sprouting in my mind.  My mom decided to have "just a look" at some of the options in their catalogue.  Pretty soon we were shopping at every tailor for the right combination of price, fabric and design capabilities.  For two people that hadn't planned on getting anything done we were failing miserably.

Mom getting measured
And once we found a place we liked (we walked all over and then settled on the one in our own hotel), my mom's order kept expanding.  Even as she was getting measured she was debating a pair of pants (which became two when she tried on the finished product the following day).  In the end my mom had two pairs of pants, two skirts, two blouses and a pair of shoes made for her.  I had three dresses made for me.  It was so much fun it's probably best that we didn't plan more time in Hoi An.

We arrived in Hanoi the following day (after another night train), and immediately booked our trips in the area.  A 3 day/2 night trip to Halong Bay, a 3 night/2 day trip to Sapa in the mountains, and our overnight train to China.  We've just returned from the first trip to Halong Bay and our spoiling continued.  The scenery was gorgeous and it only rained a bit while we were kayaking into lagoons and wet anyway so the weather was just about right. 

Marguerite, our Junk Boat
The junk boat that we were put on was on it's maiden voyage so we could still smell the lacquer on the wood.  Everything was beautiful.  There were 8 of us on a boat that slept 15, which meant we had lots of space too.  The only downside came when we had to switch boats after the first night so our boat could go back and get licensed.  It meant spending the day with four of us cramped onto a small boat with some semblance of a sundeck (but the motor had to be cranked by hand to start it).  Our tour guide was great and very knowledgeable about the area and Vietnam customs and beliefs.  We booked with ODC Travel and I would definitely recommend them to anyone else interested in going.  It was a wonderful way to spend a few relaxing nights in Vietnam.

Looking into our room

View of Halong Bay at sunset

Only a few weeks left now before I return home.  If I'm honest, I'm as apprehensive as excited about it ending.  I spent most of my time on the boat desperately trying to work out how I'm going to spend the next few months (of course I was also determining just what food I want most when I get back).

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Another Successful Border Crossing

Well, we made it to Vietnam and although the begging and harassing has eased slightly the heat is still stifling.  We crossed the border today and waited in a building that was out of the sun but cooled by only fans in the 91 degree heat.  We stood in a line attempting to stay cool while we waited to hear our name from the customs officer after he successfully stamped our passport.  As I stood with my 20 kg (44 lbs) backpack on my back and my 8 kg (17 lbs) backpack on my front I could feel the sweat dripping down my face, back and even my legs.  It was very uncomfortable and constricted by my own belongings I couldn't do much about it.

Crossing the border into Vietnam
I probably waited a total of 30 minutes but it felt like much longer.  When I finally reached the air conditioning on the bus (and my belongings were once again stowed underneath) I was so overheated that I couldn't even talk (I'm not a fan of the heat).

This evening, as I sat in my air conditioned hotel room talking to my dad about where he was stationed here.  I mentioned that we were heading north as soon as possible to get out of the heat.  He reminded me that he was very familiar with the heat in Vietnam.  I foolishly realized that I actually had it quite easy today.  I wasn't trying to do drills in full camo with heavy packs on my back in the direct sun day after day.  It could have been much worse.

But I guess that's the good thing about time moving forward...after all, if it didn't I might be taking a trip across the hot Kansas plains in a Conestoga wagon instead of in somewhat modern vehicles in Southeast Asia.

Next up:
  • Walking tour of Ho Chi Minh City including the History museum, Botanical Gardens, War Remnants Museum and other sites
  • Tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels which were used during the Vietnam war
  • Overnight train ride north to Quy Nhon Beach where we spend just a day before hopping on another night train and heading farther north to Danag and Hoi An
Things to be thankful for:
- My bug bites are no longer itching
- Making it safely into yet another country on my list.  Just one more border crossing left into a new country for me before returning home

Friday, April 8, 2011

Don't let the bed bugs bite!

There is actually a bug that has two tubes to pierce it's prey with.  One is for eating and the other injects an anti-coagulant (preventing blood from clotting) and an anesthetic (preventing the prey from feeling the bug feed). Nature is amazing...until you are the prey.

These bugs are cimicidae, more commonly called bed bugs.  After hearing reports of recent outbreaks in the States I was well aware of the risks in Southeast Asia, in fact, it was one of my fears.  There's nothing worse then when a fear becomes a reality.

In Luang Prabang, Laos we stayed at a guesthouse with a large group of people we had met on our boat ride down the Mekong.  Of the nine of us there, I was the only one that seemed to have problems.  Mom slept in a bed next to me and only received three bites.  I served as breakfast, lunch and dinner for four nights in a row (our entire stay in the city) before showing symptoms. Now I am absolutely covered from head to toe - which gives me the scary appearance of someone that is walking around with chicken pox.  (Of course it doesn't help that I also have a constant scowl and glazed over eyes as I try to ignore the itching sensation.)  On one arm alone I have about 50 spots that range from eraser size to the size of a dime.

Three days after we left Luang Prabang, and after a stopover in Siem Reap, we arrived in Phonm Penh and had to leave our hotel at 11pm (only three hours after checking in) because I noticed them again.  At least this time we recognized the problem before spending the night.  We have now washed all of our clothes, sprayed our backpacks with bug killer and visually checked every nook and cranny to make sure none of the horrible little creatures are in our things.

Today after spending a day making futile attempts not to scratch, wrapping my wounds in a cool towel, rubbing on hydrocortisone cream until I'm white, and taking antihistamines I feel like I might see the light at the end of the tunnel.  Fortunately, we are in a place where it's easy to do that without the fear of more bedbugs.

Despite this setback, there have been some amazing highlights since my last post (and I've posted more pictures for your enjoyment from Chiang Mai and Laos here or visit my Photo Albums):
  • A river cruise down the Mekong River from Thailand into Laos.  We met some fun people and tried to make the best of the slow boat that could seat 80 but held 95 people.  It was a bit crowded but definitely a fun part of the trip.
  • Luang Prabang, a fun little French town in Laos.  We checked out a beautiful waterfall nearby and saw a cultural performance/dance.
  • Siem Reap and the Angkor Wat/Angkor Thom ruins.  Absolutely incredible.  We hired a tuk tuk driver to take us around for the day and although the ruins started to look similar it didn't detract from the impressive structures.
  • A 7 hour bus ride into Phnom Penh it's fun to get a taste of the local culture.  One of the places we stopped sold spiders and crickets to eat.  A nice couple in front of us decided to partake.  Mom and I did not.
The next few days I'm hoping to see a break in my condition so that I can see the sites in Phnom Penh before we head to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.  For now, good night!  Don't let the bed bugs bite.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Photos: Chiang Mai and Laos

I've compiled the photos from the last part of my trip in Thailand, the slow boat ride down the Mekong into Luang Prabang, Laos, and our time in Laos. (Click on the album below to see it in full screen mode)

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Slow Boat ride down the Mekong and Luang Prabang, Laos