Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Hanoi I

The bus ride was smooth all the way from Hue to Hanoi. A few hours after beginning the trip we stopped for dinner at a small open-front restaurant that was accustomed to catering to passing tourists. There was a cute dog about the size of a small labrador that wandered from table to table attempting to guilt scraps of food from customers using a carefully calculated demeanor of wretchedness. He would stare until he could no longer deny that his ploy wasn't working and move on to try his luck at the next table. When he came to us I restrained myself from making cooing noises and giving him hugs (I was not immune to his pathetic-ness), and it was a good thing I did. I looked down at the creature and noticed that his nose was glistening. My brow crinkled and I looked closer. A dark drop fell to the floor, right from his panting mouth as he looked back and forth between Mom and me. It was blood. The poor thing was bleeding from his mouth. I looked in the direction from which he had come and there were a few more blood spots leading towards our table in an erratic path. I felt bad for him, but didn't have a clue what I could do to help. I figured that at the least, having a blood drooling dog wandering around your restaurant might be kind of gross so we pointed out the problem to one of the waitresses. She got a broom and shooed him out of the restaurant. Of course, once the coast was clear he came right back. Back to his old tricks. We three just looked at each other and gave a mental shrug. Whatever. Once we piled back on the bus they turned the lights out and it was off to dream land for me.

I slept decently through the night given the fact that I was on a bus and squished into a small cavity of a bed. We were already near the heart of Hanoi by the time I woke up. What a great way to travel: unconscious. Mom and Chuck informed me that I had slept through the street with all the dog carcasses. You know, for cooking. Cause some people eat dog in Vietnam. I was a little disappointed that I missed it while Mom on the other hand wished she had been the one who had slept through it. We eventually came to a stop in front of a tourist agency on a busy, power-line riddled street. Everyone was ushered out and our backpacks tossed to the sidewalk. We were meant to have a taxi pick-up waiting, so I took a look around while Mom and Chuck jostled with the other passengers to claim our baggage. There was quite a bit of activity going on with taxi drivers and hotel representatives trying to entice travelers to their accommodations. When I spotted our taxi driver, a computer printed sign of our names in her hand, I laughed out loud. It read "Charlet & Janine." It certainly wasn't what I had expected them to write, but I recognized it none the less. “Charlet” was obviously meant to be Chuck's real name, Charles, but with a 't' ending because the Vietnamese language doesn't have 's' endings. But the "Janine" was so out of the blue that I had to laugh. It was my Mom's middle name. Why they decided to use her middle name off her passport, I have no clue. We never refer to her by her middle name so it was awkwardly funny to see it being used on the sign, right next to "Charlet." We gathered around the sign holder who led us into the travel agency rather than to a car. As it turned out, she wasn't actually a driver, just our contact person. She called us a cab though, which happily took us to our hotel. The hotel was run by the brother of the owner of the hotel we had just stayed at in Hue (did you catch all that?). The Hue hotel had called the previous day and set us up with a good deal on our rooms. The lobby was small enough that it was cozy, but the decorations lent it a bit of a fancy feel. The receptionist was one of the most helpful and knowledgeable people we had met in Vietnam. And cute. He checked us in, and once we were settled we came back downstairs to have him help us with getting visa extensions (Chuck and I needed a few extra days) and finding an international hospital (Chuck had been having some lower back pain for a while now). He knew just where we needed to go for both of those issues. He even called the medical clinic to check that they were open that day. We foolishly didn't follow his advice about our visas though – we didn't yet realize just how deep his wisdom ran. We figured we would be able to go to the immigration office and fill out a form and bam, visa extended. We went to the office, but instead of forms and "bams" we were told we had to go through our hotel or a travel agency to do it. Just as our receptionist had told us. We headed back to the hotel feeling a bit deflated. I felt silly telling him that we had been turned away, but he was all courtesy and no smug-ness. He happily took our passports and sent them on their way to be extended. Chuck and I were rather nervous about the process because it would leave us without passports for our trip to Ha Long Bay. With Vietnam's love of holding passports hostage when you check into a hotel we were worried we would have problems during our three day side-trip. The receptionist gave us copies of our passports and current visas as a temporary replacement. He even wrote a little note informing those whom it might concern about our situation. It was the best we could do. Next we tackled the medical issue. A short taxi ride brought us to an upscale building full of expensive designer shops. We spotted a sign that pointed downstairs: "International Clinic." The lobby was clean and modern but not fancy. The girl behind the counter spoke enough English that we could communicate Chuck's problem, albeit without any details. Back pain. He filled out a form and we were told to come back in an hour-and-a-half to see the doctor. We killed the time by having lunch, wandering into Nine West (their prices aren't much better in Vietnam than the States, sheesh), and finally resorted to sipping on expensive coffees and teas in a busy restaurant. When the time came, Mom decided she probably didn't need to stick around for Chuck's check-up so she went back to the hotel while we headed back down into the bowels of the building. As soon as we announced our presence we were escorted in to see the doctor (they let me come along for moral support). He was surprisingly old. And although he supposedly spoke English, it was mostly unintelligible to Chuck and me. We concentrated intently on the flapping of his wrinkled mouth in an attempt to lip read the explanations that he offered. Between the two of us I think we managed to pick out most of it. He began by examining Chuck's back with eyes and hands. Then he sent us off to the various other stations around the clinic for more specific testing. After an hour Chuck had gotten an ultrasound, an x-ray, and blood work. I thought it was a pretty comprehensive check-up for lower back pain. Back in the doctors office we once again focused on lip-reading the meaning out of the old man's words. Chuck had a clean bill of health. The only possible reason for back pain was a little lipoma lump in his lower back, which was apparently nothing to be worried about. This didn't solve any of the pain problems, but it did at least give an explanation. Good to know. And the total price? $65.00. I don't know what the prices are like in the US at the moment, but I thought it was a pretty good deal. We headed back to the hotel and shared the update with Mom. That evening we headed into the downtown area on the recommendation of our trusty receptionist. It was incredibly busy, reminding me of Las Vegas at night, only replace the prostitutes and drunk people with Vietnamese folks out for dinner, or taking a jog around the lake, or walking their dogs (not the eating kind). It was great for people watching. We took forever deciding where to eat because the restaurants were all respectable looking places and slightly pricier than our usual dingy plastic-table dives. The one we chose was probably about as good as any of the others. It had a decent environment, relatively friendly staff, below average service, and satisfying food. We stayed and chatted for a little while, but headed back to the hotel fairly early because we had a big day coming up.

We woke up and did the check-out song and dance, had breakfast downstairs, and waited for our tour van to pick us up. We were headed to the beautiful (and expensive) Ha Long Bay. We would spend 3 nights in the bay before returning to Hanoi and finishing our time in Vietnam. More importantly, this would be our last excursion with my Mom. She was flying back to the States after our Ha Long Bay visit. Our van arrived and as we climbed in I thought to myself that this last trip was like the grand finale of her visit. I was looking forward to the last few day at the same time that I was dreading them. I settled into my seat and resigned myself to let it be what it would. My thoughts and feelings passed through me as though I were a sieve, washing away to be replaced by the exuberance of our spunky tour guide as he began his introduction speech. I had time to be sad later. Off to the bay we headed.

Sunday, October 31, 2010


I slept through much of the ride to Hue. It wasn't a long trip - only four hours perhaps. I tried to read, but I could not for the life of me keep my eyes open. I woke up once we entered the city limits and discovered that it was bigger and more varied than I had expected, with everything from modern, to old European, to functional concrete buildings and long iron bridges leading to hundreds years old palaces and temples. The bus dropped us off on a street that was somewhere between modern and functional concrete structures. Unsure where we were at, we grabbed a taxi to our hotel instead of walking. He dropped us off at the start of an alley, pointing us down the small lane and indicating that he could go no further. We would have to walk from there. A passing motorcyclist took an excited interest in us as were were gathering our backpacks and paying the taxi. He stopped to chat and offer his help. When he found out we were from America he became even more excited and just about begged us to have coffee or lunch with him. Normally, we would awkwardly decline, trying to be as polite as possible and not offend, but for some reason I was feeling risky and adventurous, so before Chuck or Mom had a chance to reply, I told him "Okay, yes. We can have coffee. At 2:00." He was grinning ear to ear as we pointed out a coffee shop across the street, and was still smiling as we parted ways. Chuck and Mom weren't too thrilled about the plans, but they were willing to go along with it. I figured that nothing interesting ever happens unless you do something interesting (which is a fairly unusual conclusion for me to come to – I usually try to avoid situations that are too interesting). Our hotel was a short 3 minute walk from the main road in a comfortable, small, sleek building. The most striking thing about the place was the staff. They were so ridiculously friendly and helpful. They made sure our AC was working, that we had everything we needed, were we hungry, did we want to book any tours, and always with a big, enthusiastic smile. Every time we came downstairs, whether to give them our passports or ask for the wifi password, they seemed so happy to see us and said hello and good day and all that. It was very cute, but a bit overwhelming. The rooms were nice - two king beds, flat screen TV on the wall, bathtub, and all kinds of different lighting options – I liked the cubed floor lamp that gave off a soft glow. We didn't spend much time relaxing just then, though. Feeling hungry and ready for lunch we decided to try the hotel's sister restaurant one street over and one of the overly friendly hotel staff insisted on walking us there. She put on some long sleeves and grabbed an umbrella before leaving so as to lower her chances of getting any sort of a tan. She chatted with us about how Vietnamese people love white skin and chuckled at the fact that in America many people try to darken their skin. I know they avoid tanning for societal reasons (if you have dark skin you might be seen as "inferior," or at it's best, just unattractive) but it's such a good idea for maintaining youth and health. I wish I could stand to wear long sleeves in hot weather, or be bothered to carry an umbrella with me wherever I go, but so far I haven't managed to motivate myself enough. At the restaurant we met yet another incredibly friendly girl named Dong (whenever she said her name her lips clamped shut and cheeks puffed out on the last syllable) who had a tiny voice and a bit of a lisp. Once finished with lunch it was close to 2:00 PM, so we headed off to our meeting with the random old Vietnamese man. I secretly hoped he wouldn't show up, but that was not to be. He had not forgotten and was as excited as ever when he spotted us coming towards the coffee shop. We all took a seat in small, plastic chairs and ordered from the limited, unwritten menu. We had to ask for a number of different drinks before we hit on one that the surly owner actually had on hand. Once that was taken care of we introduced ourselves and delved into conversation. He was very curious about where we were from and what we thought of Vietnam, and especially curious about my Dad when we mentioned that he had been there during the war. It turned out that he was one of those who had supported the south, something about his own father having been involved with the US military in some capacity. He insisted that he knew my Dad - I never figured out if he meant figuratively or if he was convinced he had really met him at some point. Not sure. But he told us that he would pray for him, which was a nice sentiment. There were some definite anti-north and anti-current-Vietnam-government sentiments that he didn't feel comfortable speaking about at a normal volume of speech, so occasionally he would lower his voice and lean in to tell us stories about being snatched in the night if you disagreed with the government, or how they take money or land from the people on a whim. He also said that I have some sort of peaceful Buddha look going on. I wasn't quite sure what he meant by that either, but he meant it as a compliment and I took it as such. At the end of our conversations he decided he wanted to give us some coffee, and wanted us to bring some of it to Dad. So he took five minutes to run down the road and returned with a bag of individual-serving coffee packets and two coffee drip cups. Then he asked us for $10 to cover the cost. Ah, Vietnam – where everything comes with a cost. Gotta love it. We said goodbye to him, grateful for the strange experience and not quite sure what to make of it, and headed to the train station. We were hoping to get train tickets from Hue to Hanoi, but all the sleeper cars were sold out when we arrived. I conferred quickly with Mom and Chuck and decided we would go ahead and just get regular seats, but when I pushed my way through to the window again, those were sold out as well. I'm leaving out all the gruesome details of this experience, but let me assure you that the whole attempt to buy tickets was utterly frustrating. There was no line - just a crowd that you had to shove your way through. The seller didn't speak any English and didn't give a damn about anyone, Vietnamese or otherwise. The trains were obviously not being efficiently run due to the overwhelming number of people who wanted to travel but couldn't get tickets. The whole system seemed so apathetic and cold. I was so glad to get out of there. We booked a bus with our hotel instead - much cheaper, nicer people, and plenty of seats. After that we finally had some time to relax at the hotel. Dinner was eaten at a fancier place than we usually went to. We tried a number of different Hue specialties, one of which came with a fermented shrimp sauce that wasn't as bad as it sounds, but still nothing I'd choose to eat again. I convinced Mom and Chuck to indulge in some ice cream afterwards, and then headed to the hotel for the rest of the night.

We woke up early on the 3rd and waited downstairs to be picked up for our DMZ tour, DMZ being the demilitarized zone, or the old border between north and south Vietnam. The tour bus ended up being a much smaller tour van, and a rather uncomfortable one at that. I was not thrilled about spending the next 12 hours hauling around in it. We drove in silence for the first two hours - no tour guide, no chatter. A few of us tried to sleep, but the seats weren't cut out for it. They were hardly cut out for sitting. We were all relieved when we finally stopped to pick up the tour guide and have breakfast. We ate, used the bathroom, then climbed back into the van, ready for the tour to actually start. Mom, who had been unlucky enough to be stuck in the tiny, fold out chair for the first leg of the trip, now got to sit in the cushier front seat because the guide needed the fold out seat given its central location in the van. Then we were off again, only this time we got some info about the sights we were seeing and were going to see. The guide told us about the craters that, although hard to see while flying by in a vehicle, littered the fields on either side of the road. She said the fighting was quite brutal in certain parts of the DMZ (she pronounced it dee-em-zed, like the British would) even though it was supposed to be a battle-free area. When we passed over the Ben Hai River she pointed out that it had been the official border between the north and the south. To the north of the river were the Vinh Moc tunnels, which was where we were headed. We learned that they had been dug over the course of two years, housed 350 people, and were bombed ceaselessly by the Americans. One series of attacks forced them to stay within the tunnels for 10 days straight, the longest amount of time they went without glimpsing sunlight. Seventeen babies were born within the tunnels and spent the first few years of their lives not knowing that their tunnel-dwelling existence was unusual. The people were so against leaving their home that they suffered through almost eight years of an underground existence just to stay. Arriving at the tunnels we were given a short above ground tour and shown a ventilation shaft (many of these were made with the help of the American drill bombs, which drilled just far enough to start a deep hole, but never could quite make it down to the level of the tunnels), a number of tunnel entrances (which were way bigger than the ones at the Cu Chi tunnels) and the museum (there was a picture of the Vinh Moc choir - five ladies singing in the tunnels). Then we got to the good part where we got to actually go underground. These tunnels were very different from the ones at Cu Chi. I could stand up as I walked through them, for one. They were also much cooler than Cu Chi, thanks to the fact that a number of entrances opened onto the beach and sucked the windy air into and through the tunnels. There was one doorway (forks in the tunnel were often framed with wood, like a doorless doorway) that had a lovely cool breeze and I just wanted to stand there for five minutes to enjoy it. In one part of the tunnel, as we were nearing the exit, the guide warned us that it was slippery and to be careful. I almost slipped once, but caught myself. Immediately afterward I almost slipped again. And then again, twice more. Fate finally rolled her eyes at my ineptitude and tossed me to the ground with a squeal. Gah. Five different people around me were all "Oh my gosh! Are you all right?" Yeah yeah, I'm fine. I laughed it off as well as I could and when I emerged into the sunshine a few minutes later I was rather proud of my dirt streaked arm. I had Mom take a picture for me before I brushed it off. We had come out at one of the beach-side entrances and the blue water looked delicious. There was no time to frolic in the ocean though, so we followed our guide back to the entrance where we haggled with the seven different vendors for water before getting back in the van and heading to our next stop: the Rockpile. Let me tell you, the Rockpile was very boring. It's not supposed to be exciting though, as you can't even get close to it - all you can do is stare at it from the side of the highway and try to imagine the history that the tour guide just explained to you but you have since forgotten. All I can recall about it is that some serious fighting happened there. Now it just looks like a small, jagged hill overgrown with greenery. Back in the van and on to Khe Sanh Combat Base. This was yet another site where some pretty serious battles took place. I believe it was mainly US Marines that were stationed there. They underestimated the North Vietnamese army and ended up abandoning the place in 1968, but not until after a lot of lives had been lost. Now the base is home to not much more than a small museum and a couple helicopters. The black and white photos in the museum had captions that read "...courageous men who killed American troop..." under a picture of Vietnamese soldiers, or "Looking up the way to escape" under a photo of a lone American soldier. The surrounding countryside was rather beautiful. I have to admit, I enjoyed it, the chicken and her peeping chicks, the chilie plant, and the butterfly that landed on my skirt more than the war stuff. I think I was getting warred-out by that point. Chuck and I got sodas from the single drink vendor who used nothing more than an igloo cooler to keep the drinks cold, and waited by the van for the rest of the tour group to finish exploring. I think much of the rest of the group was feeling the same as me because it didn't take long for everyone to gather round and for us to move on to the next, and last destination. As we were driving alongside a rocky river I noticed a group of people sifting through the pebbles along the shore and asked the guide what they were up to. Just as I suspected, they were looking for gold. What I hadn't expected was that it was a government run and owned operation. I hadn't ever heard of government run mines, but being that it was Vietnam, it fit in with the style of government. Not five minutes past them we stopped once again to take a look at the Dak Rong Bridge, which marks the beginning of one of the important highways used during the war. We climbed into the van one last time and breathed a sigh of relief that we were finished. All that was left to do was make the two hour trip back to Hue. A number of us tried sleeping through the ride, but that darn uncomfortable bus was uncooperative. Other than that, the ride was smooth and traffic free. We had an uneventful evening: dinner at the hotel restaurant and setting up a Hue tour for the next day. Sleep.

On the 4th, Mom and I got up and ready for our tour. Chuck was burned out, so he opted to stay at the hotel and relax while we saw the city. Oh, and it was the 4th of July, so happy Independence Day to America! Of course, there was no celebrating the occasion in the middle of Hue, Vietnam, but at least we remembered it. Mom and I hung around downstairs until someone came by to pick us up for the tour. We followed her down the alley and out to the main street where a big, long charter bus was waiting for us. We were just about the last passengers to be picked up, so the only two seats next to each other that were available were at the very back of the bus. I noticed as made our way down the central aisle that almost all of the other passengers were Asian, probably Vietnamese. I wondered what language the tour would be in. We picked up a couple more people (one guy had to sit in a fold-up chair placed in the aisle because we ran out of seats) and headed to the Imperial Palace. The guide gave some background info in Vietnamese as well as English (that answered my earlier question), and then we filed off the bus and made our way to the entrance. Man, was it hot out. Every time I stepped off the (mildly) air-conditioned bus my back bloomed in sweat, making me look as though I'd recently jumped in a pool with my clothes on. I wasn't the only one though, which made me feel better. I learned that day that yes, even Asian people sweat. We wandered around the Imperial Palace, sometimes staying with the tour group, sometimes wandering on our own, and eventually losing our group all together only to run into them again on the other side of the palace grounds. We also came across a teen-aged girl who was sitting on a bench in the midst of the undulating crowd of people crying her eyes out. She was bawling and wailing and not trying to hide her distress in the least. Everyone stared as they passed her by, and one couple tried to approach her to see if she needed help. She completely ignored them, got up, and moved to another bench, her howling uninterrupted. Very strange. I really wanted to know what her story was, but alas, I will have to make one up: she was a Vietnamese princess from the times when the palace was whole and bustling with royal life until one day she wandered into a strange, small room in the royal temple and when she came out she found herself in 2010, only she didn't know she was in 2010 or what was going on and she was just scared and lonely, surrounded by strangely dressed people talking a funny version of her Vietnamese language. And then she stubbed her toe and it really hurt, hence the crying. Moving on. The complex itself wasn't particularly stunning. There were a few beautiful buildings, but nothing really made me say "Oooooooo." On the way back to the bus we grabbed some pomello and green mango to try. The pomello ended up not being ripe. The mango as well, but at least it was meant to be that way. It made my mouth pucker furiously. We were driven to one of the city's better known garden houses next. It was... a house. With a messy backyard garden. I suppose I was, once again, unimpressed. I mean, sure it was pretty, but not handsome enough to tempt me (anyone recognize that reference?). There were some pomello and peach or apricot trees in the backyard, along with a number of other unknown plants. We next headed to Thien Mu Pagoda which was much more attractive than the garden house. The pagoda was on a small hill and surrounded by enchanting river scenery. Small, canoe-like boats laden with unknown goods drifted against the blue-brown water. Larger passenger boats crowded along the shore, their owners offering rides to anyone who passed within earshot. The pagoda itself was lovely in its simplicity with seven tiers that tapered upwards to the sky. It made for some pretty photos. Past the pagoda and through a big archway was a temple. The heat dulled the thump of drum beats that were pounding out some sort of daily ceremony. As we made our way towards the temple the ceremony ended with a few sharp strikes of a gong, and faded into the typical sounds of tourist chatter. We arrived just as a group of white-robed monks were filing out through a side entrance. Whatever the ceremony was, we had missed it. The temple wasn't special as far as we could tell, so we spent only a few minutes within and headed back to the pagoda. Our tour guide was busy rounding up the few English speakers on the tour when we showed up, in order to tell us some of the history of the pagoda. From what I could gather, a spirit woman appeared on the hill and proclaimed that whoever built a pagoda on that spot would be the savior of the province. Some guy heard this story and decided to built a pagoda, thereby making him the savior. I dunno about you, but it sounded to me like he kinda cheated the system. But he left a nice pagoda behind, so it's okay. At this point Mom and I decided that we were going to head back to the hotel instead of finishing the tour. We were catching the bus to Hanoi that evening and wanted to have time to shower and relax before hand. Our tour guide seemed genuinely disappointed when we told him our plans, and doubly so when two Australian women joined in and decided to do the same as us. But he was very accommodating about it and even helped us hire a boat to take us down the river and back into downtown. The Australian women joined us which cut the price in half. We stepped on board the boat and took a seat in the plastic patio chairs that had been arranged in front of each window. The chairs weren't nailed to the floor, but it wasn't as if we were going out on the stormy high seas so it didn't much matter. I think the owners lived on the boat, so when it wasn't full of people they stacked the chairs in a corner so they had space to stretch out on the floor to sleep or eat or whatever. We were basically taking a ride down the river in someones living room. As soon as we got going one of the women on board began trying to sell us stuff. First it was drinks, which Mom and I did buy. Then it was scarves, pictures, cards, etc. Mom ended up buying one of the cards because they were kind of nice, but otherwise we just wanted her to leave us alone. The four of us were glad when she finally ran out of stuff to try and sell. We puttered down the river for 20 minutes, the wind blowing in through the wide windows and drying our eyes. The shore was full of green with a few ancient stone tombs here and tall water-side hotels there. It wasn't a long ride, and it was certainly much nicer than a packed tour bus. The only problem with the experience was that they tried to drop us off short of our destination and told us we'd have to pay another 20,000 dong (or $1 US) to go to the main dock. I was inclined to argue, but the Australian ladies sighed and agreed. It was only a few minutes more until we were once again on dry land. From there we made the short walk back to our hotel where we could finally sit down and relax in the cool air of the AC. Chuck had just ordered lunch when we arrived, so Mom and I quickly added to the order, only realizing then how hungry we were. After eating we showered and hung around on our laptops for the rest of the afternoon. One of the girls who worked at the hotel somehow found Chuck on facebook and went looking through all his pictures. She laughed when she saw the ones from the start of the trip and told him that he had been fat back then. She couldn't stop giggling. That started the girls on a conversation about their weight, one of them commenting on how fat she was because she weighed 40 kilos (about 100 pounds). All I could do was shake my head with incredulity. Sigh. At close to 5:00 PM we were picked up and taken to the bus stop. Although the bus was sitting right in front of us, we still had to wait a good 30 minutes before being allowed on. It was a bit of a push-fest to get on as well, which I thought was strange as I think everyone had pre-bought tickets. I never understood pushing or impatience when you're guaranteed an assigned seat. It was a sleeper bus again, but it seemed a bit smaller than the ones we'd been on previously. Mom climbed up into her bed (we were all on the top bunks this time) and immediately had a small panic attack of sorts. Her legs and feet didn't quite fit into the little cave that was meant for them. She twisted and turned a bit. She scooted down and scooted up. She said she wasn't sure if she was going to be able to make the trip. But then we discovered this little door thing down by the foot of the “cave.” Mom was able to pop her toes out the door and that seemed to make it all better. So thank goodness for that, otherwise we might never have made it to Hanoi.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Hoi An

Our private taxi arrived at our hotel in Hoi An with an hour of daylight to spare. I felt badly for the tour guide and driver having to go all the way back to Kontum that same night. They wouldn't get back until very early in the morning. I hoped they felt it was worth the however-much-money they got for driving us. The hotel was kind enough to bring us glasses of orange juice and cold, wet washcloths to wipe our faces with as we waited during the check in process. I do enjoy the wet washcloths – it's so refreshing to be able to wipe all the sweat and grime away. I feel especially satisfied when my cloth comes away with smudges of dirt, the proof of my improved cleanliness. We spent 30 minutes in our rooms recovering from the long ride, then headed downstairs to the hotel pool for the complimentary happy hour. The drinks were surprisingly decent being both tasty and containing more alcohol than one would expect from a free drink. The area quickly filled up with other hotel guests, almost all of whom fit the typical backpacker stereotype: young, full of energy, and ready to see the world. Their conversations bordered on excited shouting and hysterical laughter. I couldn't tell whether their energy made me feel more excited or depressed. Once happy hour was over we went in search of food. There were not as many restaurants around as I would have imagined, and most of the ones we did find were very much geared towards tourists. That's what you get from a tourist town I guess. Doesn't mean they have bad food, though. The place we ended up at was alright. We tried a salad with lotus and a well known dish called cau lao (which wasn't that good) as well as a few bia hoi. That was about as exciting as our night got seeing as we were pretty worn out from the long sightseeing trip from Kontum.

We woke somewhat early for the buffet breakfast in the hotel dining area. Amazingly, it wasn't bad. I didn't feel like I was eating reheated left-overs. Then I got to work researching who were the best tailors in the city, as Hoi An is well known for it's excessive number of tailor shops. After looking through pages and pages of reviews, the one that stood out the most was a more expensive, but good quality shop called Yaly's. Mom trusted in my research capabilities and agreed with my choice. By 11:00 AM we were ready to go check out the tailor and the town, our first stop being the former. It was a much grander building than I had expected, almost like a small mansion. The downstairs area had a display of live silk worms and a silk spinning machine loaded with cocoons. Whether it was for display or practical use, I don't know. Past the silk worms there was pre-made clothing, pillows, lanterns, handbags, and other odds and ends. Upstairs was where all the tailoring happened and was filled with bolts of fabric, clothing catalogues, and changing rooms. There was even a little section where you could get tailored shoes, but it was obvious that shoes were not their specialty because the shoe room was dark and abandoned. I sat down at one of the tables and was immediately approached by a smiling young woman who slid a number of catalogues in my direction. I opened the first one and began my search for the perfect...dress, skirt, blouse, whatever. I had no clue what I was looking for. The books were filled with clippings from magazines like Cosmo, Style, Teen, Land's End, and anything else they could find with pictures of stylishly dressed women. I looked through five catalogues and only found three or four pieces that I liked enough that I would consider having them made. In the end I settled on a business-y dress and a Chinese style dress, each at $55. Meanwhile, Mom was doing the same and decided to have a few pairs of pants made. Chuck didn't want to get anything and contented himself with flipping through the books while he waited for us. Next, I went around with my designated assistant to pick out fabrics which was kind of fun. A nice charcoal gray for the business dress, and a red patterned Chinese silk for the other. Then I got myself measured: bust, waist, hips, neck, shoulders, torso, underarms, etc. Photos were taken of me from the front and side, and I was sent downstairs to pay. All I had to do after that was wait until the next day. Hard to imagine them turning the flat fabric into a dress in just 24 hours, especially since I was most certainly not the only one who was purchasing clothing. Moving on from Yaly's we came to our first taste of Hoi An's old town: Trieu Chau Assembly Hall. First, let me tell you a tiny bit about Hoi An. Back in the 16th to 17th centuries the city was a big international hub and home to quite a few nationalities, a big one being the Chinese. Their presence was reflected in the architecture which has, miraculously, survived until today. These preserved buildings make up Hoi An's old town and are a popular attraction for tourists, which is what the city is known for these days with the trade having moved further up the coast to the north. The assembly hall we were at was one of a few buildings that had been used for meetings and general socialization among the Chinese ex-pats. The sloped roof had a lovely pair of tiled dragons peering into a glass sphere, and the wooden support posts inside were carved into various decorative scenes. The old man who guarded the front door (you had to pay him an entrance fee to get in) silently pointed out what he thought were the more interesting parts of the building, although we kept wondering what exactly it was he was trying to draw our attention to. We spent only a short time there before moving on. Back on the road we turned down a sunny alley, past people's homes and gardens, down another larger road, and to the central market. They had the typical assortment of food and souvenirs such as fruit, vegetables, noodles, jewelry, chopsticks, hats, and even some preserved eggs that still had the wood chip coating that was used during the aging process. There was a stall full of wooden carvings, which weren't anything I would want on my shelves at home, but their creator was an interesting fellow. He was busy singing away at the top of his lungs as he violently hammered at a poor chunk of wood on his worktable. Singing and smashing. He seemed to really enjoy his work. Or he was ridiculously bored and making a spectacle of himself for amusement sake. At the edge of the market a pretty, middle aged woman with a cone hat smiled broadly at us and beckoned for someone to sit next to her and take a photo. I knew what I was getting into as I sat down next to her and smiled, so I wasn't surprised when immediately after Chuck pressed the camera button she demanded $1. I was surprised at how aggressively she went about it though. Her smile dropped into a very serious, stern look and she shot one hand out in a "give me" gesture while the other tightened its grip on our interlocked arms so as not to let me get away. One minute she was all puppy dogs and sunshine, and the next she was hell fires and death rays. Upon handing over $0.50 she went immediately back into sunshine mode. I might have been more inclined to give her a full dollar if she hadn't been so ill spirited about the whole thing. Her loss. We moved on and made our way down to the small canal, across a lantern-strewn bridge, and to a small island that was home to a number of restaurants, tourist shops, and hotels. It seemed that very few of the restaurants were open just then, which was understandable because the heat was ridiculous, but left us feeling a little bit disappointed. There was but one place that looked like it might be open, except that there was no one in sight. We shouted "hello" a few times before we noticed movement from on top of the big wooden table behind the counter. A woman sat up and blinked at us in sleepy surprise, then smiled and quickly climbed down to welcome and get us menus. I felt a bit guilty about having waked her, but I justified it by telling myself that she'd rather get some customers than sleep the day away. I tried to order a local specialty called mi quang - a dish that I had been wanting to try, and was on the menu, but that she said she didn't actually have. She kept pointing to some other dish and saying “Same.” If it was the same, then why would she have the one and not the other? Obviously, not the same. There's no fooling me. So I ordered another local specialty called "white rose." It was sort of like shrimp wontons (without the soup) scrunched up so that they look like little white roses. They kind of did I guess. And they were tasty enough. I ordered a sweet iced coffee as well, and instead of telling me she also did not have that, she ran down to a nearby coffee shop and ordered it for me from them. How nice of her! After hanging out there for as long as we reasonably could, we bounced over to a coffee shop on the canal's edge for some more refreshments (we still weren't ready to go back out into the blinding afternoon heat). We somehow caught the attention of a 7 or 8 year old little girl who took a liking to us. Chuck in particular. She kept playing this peek-a-boo game that was cute and funny at first, but quickly became more annoying than anything else. We had to resort to ignoring her. She really could have used a friend to play with - someone to help her tear through all that pent up energy. In my efforts to bore her with my lack of interest I turned my attention to the lantern stalls across the street. Their owners were hard at work making the lanterns, and I was surprised at how simple the process looked. They would start with the lantern's skeleton frame, then take the fabric of choice and glue it to one of the "ribs," stretch it to the next rib and glue, stretch glue, etc. They used some nice shimmery, colorful fabrics. I particularly liked the deep cerulean/turquoise color, so I went to all three stalls and examined their lanterns of that color to find the best one. I even managed to talk the vendor down from $3 to $2 once I made my choice. By that point we had no more excuses to avoid continuing our sightseeing, so we headed back across the bridge and once again into the heart of old town. We took a look at the Japanese Covered Bridge, but didn't go across because the ticket to do so was more than we wanted to pay. It didn't look like it was very exciting to walk across so I didn't feel like I was missing out. We had no specific plan of action at this point, so we wandered aimlessly through the streets and alleys. We wandered into a temple through the back entrance and saw these cool spiral cones of burning incense; got some weird ice cream from a street cart; popped into a souvenir shop to look at all the crap they had for sale. We even spotted another tailor that I recognized from my online research and stopped in. Chuck was convinced by Mom and myself to get a couple of button up shirts for $15 a piece. After picking out the fabrics, Mr. Xe - the shop owner - came in and took all of the measurements. He was quite a bit shorter and smaller than Chuck so it was pretty funny to watch him quickly and purposefully spin around him with his measuring tape flying and mouth working in unconscious spasms of concentration. He was back out the door as soon as the last measurement was jotted down. Once finished we moved on down the road, stopping into a few random shops that caught our interest. Coming once again to the food market, Chuck had a hankering for some watermelon. No one was selling individual slices so we decided to just get a whole, small melon. She charged us $2, which I thought was a rip off seeing as we can usually get a quarter of a melon for $0.30. She did chop it up a bit for us though, which was good. While Mom and I were dealing with the watermelon situation, Chuck sneaked off and bought me a red rose. Such a sweetie! We were becoming worn out from our sightseeing by then, so we headed back to the hotel for the rest of the afternoon. We went for a swim in the pool which was quite nice, and layed around in the AC of our rooms. After sunset we headed back into old town in search of dinner. It was very pretty at night with soft yellow lights hanging off the buildings and glowing, colored lanterns dangling from lamp posts. We were in search of a tin-table restaurant, but the old town was touristy enough that we didn't find any. So we settled for a nicer place in a cozy, wood-and-concrete building. We sat on the second floor, right on the small balcony with a lovely view over the canal. We tried a number of Hoi An specialties such as fried wontons, egg pancakes, and mi quang (finally). It was all quite good and decently priced and made for a very enjoyable evening. The wait staff, although very kind, weren't exactly on top of things, so when we were ready to pay there was no one around to get us the bill. We wandered downstairs where they went into a flutter over getting us the check and serving us our free watermelon dessert that came with the meal. Then we were finally free to pay and move on. I took some time to get a few long exposure pictures in an attempt to capture the pretty lights in the darkness while Mom went across the canal to check out some sort of show that was going on. Chuck very patiently waited with me while I photographed and a good 15 minutes later we headed over to join Mom. The show she was watching was, as far as I could tell, some sort of Chinese style bingo. There were two announcers singing rather than calling out the numbers, accompanied by a small band. I couldn't figure out what was going on beyond that, though. And then sleep. Long day.

On the 1st we were woken up at 7:30 AM by the sound of hammers banging somewhere in our hotel. Unable to go back to sleep, we got up and got ready for the day. By the time we went next door to check in with Mom she had already left to do some sightseeing on her own. She had been wanting to visit some of the open-to-the-public old homes in the old town, whereas Chuck and I weren't so interested, so she decided to go by herself. I hadn't expected her to leave so early, but we had contingency plans to meet for our fittings at Yaly's at 10:00 AM, so it was all good. Chuck and I had our hotel breakfast and then walked to the tailor shop, where we met up with Mom, just as planned. She shared her morning and the pictures she had taken. She told us about Hoi An's history of flooding and showed us one photo where you could distinctly see the discoloration that the flood water had left on the lower six feet of one house's wooden walls. That's some pretty serious flooding. Another house had some ladies doing Vietnamese embroidery. Some had small temples. It sounded like she had a pretty good time. Once we were caught up (which happened pretty quickly) we went in for our fittings. I was worried at first because both my dresses were baggy and box-shaped, but my assistant lady assured me that it would all be taken in. She pinched and marked the dresses at the waist, bust, shoulders, and hemline, then took them away again, back to the unseen tailor. Mom did the same. We were to come back one more time in the afternoon, to pick up the final product. We headed back to the hotel in the meantime, stopping in a small bakery along the way for some drinks and a pastry. The power at our hotel was out due to electricity rationing, so we opened our balcony doors in the hopes that there might be a breeze. There wasn't any, but at least the day was a bit overcast and not so hot as it could have been. I set up a photo shoot for the lantern we had bought the day before, the embroidery piece Mom bought back in Nha Trang, and a little stuffed elephant I had bought way back in Laos. I had been meaning to photograph those items for a while, so it was good to finally get that taken care of. We left for the old town around 2:30 PM, first heading to Mr. Xe's shop to pick up Chuck's shirts. They were perfect just the way they were, but before we were allowed to walk off with them, Mr. Xe needed to give him the once over and his approval. With a very serious expression he spun Chuck around a few times, tugged at the shoulders a bit and finally gave a curt nod. We were free to go. I have to say, the shirts looked quite good. Then we headed back to Yaly's where Mom and I tried on our clothing one last time. Everything was all taken in and snug with the hems sewed up nice and neat. My dresses hugged the curve of my back while still leaving room for my hips – this can sometimes be a problem in buying commercial clothing, but not at a tailor shop. Same for Mom's pants - they fit just the way she wanted. We had to wait around for some last minute tailoring on one pair, during which time we spoke to a nice, older Australian couple who were also getting a few things made. The woman was a bit of a complainer, but nice none the less. She had apparently been back to the shop a bunch of times already because her clothing wasn't fitting her right. Eventually the pants were finished and we headed back to the hotel to drop everything off. It was close enough to dinner time by that point that we turned right back around for food. We hadn't yet been to the beach - one of Hoi An's other tourist attractions - so we grabbed a taxi in its direction. He dropped us off at a restaurant right on the sand and we were feeling lazy enough (and rain drops were beginning to fall) that we decided to eat there rather than hunt around for some place better. The sun was setting behind distant rain clouds which marred the sunset a bit, but it was still nice. The food wasn't as good as other restaurants we'd been to, but it left us full and satisfied none the less. We taxied back to the hotel, had a few happy hour drinks and talked with the other young travelers, and finally headed to the room to relax for the rest of the night.

We checked out of the hotel on the 2nd and waited around in the lobby for our ride to the bus station. After some time we asked the front desk when it was supposed to arrive and were surprised to find that they didn't have a clue what we were talking about. We had ordered and paid for the bus through them the day before, so we thought for sure they would know when it would arrive. The very girl we had given our money to was standing right there. But they didn't know about any bus. We went into more details, explaining where we were going, who we had talked to, what times they had told us to be downstairs, etc. After some time they seemed to realize what bus we were talking about, but the problem now was that they didn't have any record of us having bought tickets for it. We showed them our receipt and everything, but they didn't seem to think we had paid or they couldn't find our reservation. I was getting aggravated. Someone finally took a look at the book over at the travel agency desk and saw our name. Then they called us a taxi because the free pick-up we were supposed to get was finished with his route and dropping people off at the bus already. The taxi was a free ride which made us wonder if we hadn't been tricked when he dropped us off at a seemingly random street corner and told us to wait there. We were about ready to commiserate with each other about having been swindled when we noticed there was a travel agency in the hotel behind us. They confirmed that the bus to Hue would be coming by shortly to pick up any stray passengers (us and a couple of other people who had arrived), and eventually, it did show up. I found myself impressed that we actually made it on board despite all the missed rides and messed up communication. It was a chaotically functional start to the day.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


The trip to Kontum was one of the more intense ones we've taken. First, as we drove out of the city with the morning sun creeping slowly up the sky we were sitting in just the right spot to catch all the early morning rays. For the fist 45 minutes we were burning up there in the backseat. As the sun rose higher and gave us reprieve we made our way into the mountains where the roads became incredibly winding, tossing us left and right with every turn. I was still pretty tired and wanted to get a bit more sleep, but with the van swinging violently back and forth every few seconds, it was really hard to do so. After some experimenting and repositioning I discovered that if I scooted down and propped my knees against the seat in front of me, and wedged my head between the two head rests behind, I could stabilize myself just enough to get some rest. But I only got about an hours worth of shut eye thanks to our next dilemma: traffic. A long line of cars with seemingly no end in sight. Our driver didn't feel like waiting for it to clear up so he slowly passed everyone using the oncoming traffic lane, nosing his way back into line when oncoming cars made an appearance. It wasn't long until we came to the cause of the traffic jam. A big lumber truck had mismanaged a sharp turn and tipped himself over, blocking the entire roadway. There were no police cars or firetrucks or toe-trucks in site, but that didn't stop anyone from taking control of the situation and trying to fix it. Various civilian vehicles were pulled over onto the grassy shoulder of the road, their owners all working together to try and redirect traffic while they waited for more serious help to arrive and upright the truck. They had cleared a path through the bushes on the shoulder of the road next to the overturned truck and were directing drivers through the narrow dirt path. Traffic wasn't moving fast, but it was definitely moving thanks to these guys. Everyone in our van piled out as we neared the wreckage. We walked past the roadblock, checking out the monstrous underbelly of the truck as we passed. Our van pushed his way past the rest of the cars and skipped in front, was directed through the bushy detour, and picked us up on the other side. We continued on from there, enjoying (be sure to read that with sarcasm) the bouncy roads and winding curves as we passed by some lovely mountain scenery (not sarcasm) dotted with houses and crops of all kinds: pepper, dragonfruit, corn, rice, bananas, beans. Cassava was an interesting crop that at first had us confused. It looks awfully similar to marijuana from a distance, so we were wide eyed at the amount of pot that appeared to be freely growing in fields. But after some research we figured out that it was just cassava, aka: tapioca. The world made sense once again. We were waylaid for the second time halfway through our trip when we were pulled over at a police roadblock. The cop was obviously just looking for something to charge us with, because he kept levying bogus charges against the driver such as claiming that the front seat passenger wasn't wearing a seat belt when she was, or that the brake light was out when it wasn't. After a few more failed attempts we were sent on our way without any ticket. We continued unmolested for the rest of the trip, only stopping for lunch and a couple of leg-stretching breaks. One such stop was at a rubber tree plantation, which was exciting for Mom and me because we'd been curious about the trees ever since we first saw them back in Ho Chi Minh. Up close we could see that each tree had a short piece of plastic spiraled halfway around its circumference, with a wooden bowl perched beneath it collecting white sap from a gash in the bark. There wasn't much sap in the bowls, but I suppose when you have so many trees it adds up. There was a woman going from tree to tree pouring the sap into a big white bucket - harvesting the rubber. I don't know how it's transformed into the final product, but it's hard to imagine how the creamy white sap becomes hard black tires. Our van took us as far as the town of Pleiku. We were dropped off at one of the local bus stations, but not the one we needed to be at in order to catch our next bus. Lucky for us, one of the fellows who had ridden with us from Nha Trang spoke a bit of English and very kindly helped to get us on a free taxi shuttle. The taxi dropped us off at the other bus station, which was less a station and more a small dirty lot. It looked like the area had been used as a market that morning because the ground was littered with bits of vegetable and trash from an earlier frenzy. The bus was similar in quality to the ones we saw in India and we were definitely the only Westerners on board which got us a few curious stares from the other passengers. I recall watching the man in front of me as he carefully unwrapped a white gauze bundle and peered at the two bloody teeth that were nestled in it. I imagined that he must live on a farm somewhere out of town, and when he has medical problems he probably just waits until they're so bad that he has to see a doctor. By that time it's so far gone that there's nothing to be done but, say, remove the tooth. What a different life from the one I come from. I wait until the last minute because I'm lazy, not because I'm broke. Although, what do I know? Maybe he's lazy too and lives on a sweet piece of farmland with big screen TVs and a talking toilet. You never do know. The bus left promptly at 2:00 PM, surprising us with it punctuality. We left the town behind and drove for a good 45 minutes through lovely farmland scenery with a backdrop of mountains. The houses were all rather simple and boxy, although some homes looked like they had a bit of money. As we crossed the Dak Bla River the city of Kontum sort us sprang up before us rather than slowly melting out of the farmland. We crossed the bridge, and poof, there was the city. Lucky for us, the hotel we were to stay at was right next to the bus drop off. It was a big hotel too, but strangely empty as we entered the lobby. We checked in and headed upstairs to our rooms. They were nice rooms, but everything had this empty, dead feeling that was unnerving. It felt like a haunted hotel in a scary movie. We retired to our rooms and rested for a bit, took a bath and got cleaned up. I hopped online to see what I could find out about the town, such as where any travel agencies were located or other hotel recommendations. At around sunset we set out to find some food, a travel agency, and to check out another hotel. We made it to the hotel first, and seeing as it was pretty cute and cozy we made reservations for the next night. Then we searched in vain for a travel agency. We never found one. And food was harder to find than we thought. We ended up at a simple pho place whose owners seemed kind of excited to have us there. They had an adorable two year old daughter that they kept trying to get to wave at us. We tried to help by giving her a wave, but all she could manage to do was grin at us and stumble around on her little legs. She never quite got the waving part down. After eating we headed back to the hotel for the night. I was really tired and fell asleep at my computer a few times before finally giving up and going to bed.

The hotel offered a buffet breakfast with the price of the room, so we made sure to wake up in time to partake of it on the 27th. Once again, the empty, soulless feel of the place was unnerving. There were a few hotel staff hovering around the buffet, but other than that the huge banquet sized dining room was empty. And, as usual for buffet breakfasts in Vietnam, the food was not very good. We had some time before we needed to check out, so we headed outside to take in the river and surrounding scenery. We found a lot of those cassava plants, as well as a kapok tree with banana shaped seed pods filled with fluffy down. Chuck wandered down to explore the rivers edge while Mom and I took a stroll along the more distant sidewalk. We were struck by the fact that it looked like a lot of care and consideration had been put into making the sidewalk area look nice - with little areas for decorative plants and an attractive railing running alongside - but beyond that it didn't look like anyone was taking care of it. We had to watch out for the dried piles of cow poo that no one was interested in cleaning up. There was litter and trash from the previous night of socializing. Weeds were growing through the cracks in the sidewalk and the railing was rusty. That's not to say that I expect everything to be in tip-top shape everywhere I go – at home or abroad. It was just the contrast between the quality of structure and the quality of upkeep that I found odd. After the short walk we headed back to the hotel to shower and pack. We checked out and grabbed a taxi to our new hotel. It was close enough to walk, but we would have needed showers again once we arrived – Vietnam is a hot, hot place in the summer. Besides, the taxi was only $1 or so. We checked in to our new hotel, which was much, much better than the big, empty one. It was smaller for sure, but so much more cozy and welcoming. It had warmth and life. We relaxed a bit as we plotted a course for some sightseeing later that afternoon. At close to 2:00 PM we headed across the street to a tin-table restaurant that had some darn good food. They also had various pets running around the place, such as the self-assured cat that hopped up into Mom's lap while we were waiting on our order. Mom tolerated her for a bit, only shooing her away once the food arrived. After eating we walked down the road to a seminary that was home to a hill tribe museum. "Hill tribe" is an all inclusive term to describe the various groups that are indigenous to the central highlands of Vietnam, which is where Kontum was located. There are about 54 different groups in total, all having called the land that is now Vietnam their home since before the Viet-to-be came down from China a few thousand years ago. These tribes are one of the main draws for the few tourists who make it to the area. The seminary was obviously there thanks to the "white man" and his Catholicism, which the Vietnamese people have taken to quite well in the central highlands. The building was quite pretty, looking like something you might find in the countryside of Switzerland or Germany. We peeked into the dark church briefly, then tried to find the museum. We walked upstairs and down the hallways in each direction. Back downstairs we searched off to the east and out into the courtyard. We passed a number of empty classrooms, a small playground, and a fenced in garden. But we didn't find the museum. There was not a soul in sight, so asking for directions wasn't an option. In the end, we gave up and satisfied ourselves with poking around the seminary. I spotted a very cool red bug on a plant that I was compelled to photograph. I did a lot of research later and discovered it was a Lychee Stink Bug - a pest to lychee and longon trees. By the time we had explored the place to our satisfaction it had turned overcast and windy. Although we still had some other sights we wanted to see, we decided to head back to the hotel for the time being. The weather turned out to be all talk an no action though. The clouds rumbled on at us for a while but within a few hours they had lightened and we headed back out. We made our way to the wooden church, which was right next to the local orphanage. A bunch of kids were playing out front when we arrived and became shy and distantly curious in our presence. They watched us for a bit, some even bravely saying "Hello," before getting bored and returning to their play. The church wasn't special to my eyes. It was very plain and simple, with basic stained glass windows and no fancy decorations. We didn't even spend five minutes looking around the place. We took a peek at the orphanage playground - which was full kids - before moving on towards the village at the edge of town. We got a lot of stares and some "hello"s from the local people as we walked. Parents would frequently encourage their kid(s) to wave at and say "hello" to us. Everyone smiled back when we smiled at them. There was generally a very friendly feel about everyone. Distant, but friendly. The buildings became scruffier as we neared the village, and litter a bit more common. We turned right at the road that led to the village roonghouse (a special community building) and spotted its tall, steep roof not too far ahead. The village was not what my subconscious had been imagining. I guess I was expecting to see straw huts and wide open spaces. Instead, it looked the same as the town, with concrete houses and power lines. I did notice a bit of a difference in the people though. They didn't have as friendly a vibe as the folks in town. More direct staring and fewer smiles. I felt like we were invading their homes, which indeed, we kind of were. We quickly snapped some pictures of the roonghouse and instead of exploring the area more, we turned back to town. On the way back to the hotel we passed by a church that had just finished an evening service. People were streaming out of the front gates to make the walk home, many dressed in nice church clothes and a few little girls in frilly little dresses. We recognized it as the cave church that we had seen mentioned online, so we waited and watched until the crowd had almost dissipated, then went into the courtyard to have a look. Off to the right was the cave that had originally been used as the church site, a bunch of pews spread out before it and a virgin Mary tucked among the rocks along with some other religious decorations. There were a number of people sitting in silent worship, so we very quietly made our way to the back pews. A couple of old women stared at us as we took a seat, but unlike our experiences in the rest of town, their stares seemed to have a bit of venom. I tried giving one of the women a soft smile of acknowledgment, but she was unmoved and continued to stare with a hard expression. I suddenly felt rather uncomfortable, so after a few minutes I made my way back to the front gate along with Mom and Chuck. Perhaps they had some painful experiences from the war that our presence reminded them of. Or maybe I was just reading them wrong. Who knows. We headed back to the hotel for the evening, only stepping out for a late dinner at the same place we had eaten lunch.

Having done some research on Kontum tourist agencies, we decided to pay a visit to the only one in town on the 28th. We took a taxi there, even though (once again) it was within walking distance. The place was open, despite looking rather dusty and unused. We were interested in seeing the site of Dak Seang, which, although it was a fairly insignificant site, was where my Dad spent some of his more enjoyable moments of the Vietnam war. We wanted to see the area for the same reasons stated back in my Nha Trang post with the big Buddha. At first, the tour guy didn't know where we were talking about. I showed him some little maps that I had drawn of its location, thanks to some hard research online, which helped him. Once he figured out where we were wanting to go, we got down to the business of planning out a tour. The final plan was to leave early in the morning via a personal taxi complete with tour guide, stop at various points of interest along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, including Dak Seang, and be dropped off at our hotel in Hoi An that evening. He also sold us on a ceremonial dance in a nearby village for that evening. All together it was pricey, but it was important enough to Mom that she even offered to pay a good portion of the cost. We paid in advance, making sure to get a receipt as if it made us invulnerable to being ripped off. Then we walked back towards the hotel, keeping our eyes open for food along the way. We stopped at a big, open restaurant with a lot of local people that ended up being delicious and cheap. Only $1 per plate. Back at the hotel we sat around in the backyard garden area and enjoyed the overcast sky and windy weather while reading and blogging. The hotel owner cooked up a delicious smelling meal on the outdoor stove which she fed to her two dogs, much to my dismay. She even did this funny little dance as she set down the bowls. I would not have expected such a thing from her, as she seemed so stoic and reserved whenever we had spoken with her before. At 6:00 PM our taxi showed up to take us to the dance ceremony. We did a tiny bit of sightseeing on the short trip to the village and stopped at long, one-lane bridge to take a quick look around. The scenery was beautiful, as is usual for Vietnam. It's really a very beautiful country. Back in the car on the other side of the bridge we continued along bumpy dirt roads with green vegetation on either side. The guide told us that we were going to a Banar village to see a ceremonial dance that is traditionally done in the Fall. During the real ceremony they sacrifice a bull as well, but they would be leaving that part out for tonight's ceremony. I was both disappointed and relieved by this. We arrived at the village as the sun was setting. It was much more in line with what my mind had imagined a "village" would look like. Most of the houses were small, square, wooden buildings, all of the roads were dirt, and unlike in town, plant-life was living harmoniously at the edges of the village. Our guide showed us to the roonghouse which had a teepee of wood set up out front, right next to the volleyball net, in preparation for the bonfire. Then he showed us down to the river just behind the village. Then he suggested we should just walk down the dirt road through the village and have a look. It was verging on full-on night when he sent us on our way, alone, with no flashlight. There were definitely no street lights, and most houses looked like they had only one light which they preferred to keep off until it was absolutely needed. So we didn't make it too far before feeling like we were going to get lost in the dark if we didn't turn back. Our guide had run out of places to show us so he finally admitted that we were waiting on another group of tourists who were supposed to be joining us. He said that the ceremony was supposed to start right at 7:30 PM so that the dancers could watch the World Cup at 8:00 PM (I loved it - a semi-remote village with barely any electricity and they are concerned about missing a World Cup match), but that the other group had run into mechanical problems. It looked they they were going to be missing the beginning of the game. We told him we were fine with waiting and felt much more comfortable sitting on the platform entrance to the roonghouse than walking blindly through the village. We ended up waiting for an hour, at least. We tried to talk with the village leader (I don't know what he would be called in the Banar culture/language), who was a sprightly old man with a very warm personality. He actually spoke English, but his accent was thick enough that he may as well have been speaking another language. At some point, he rang a gong in the roonghouse that was so loud that my ears hurt even with my fingers plugged in them. People slowly began gathering around the pile of wood, using their cellphones as flashlights to find their way in the dark. They played some drums and laughed and sang casually with each other as we continued to wait for the other tour group. Finally, they arrived. It was a big group, all Vietnamese people who (from what I could gather) were studying tourism at their university. Everyone gathered near the roonghouse and the fire was finally lit. Well, it was lit for the first time. It kept going out over the first 10 minutes and they would run in and try to relight it, even with the dancers slowly circling around, doing their thing. They resorted to pouring a bunch of lighter fluid on it and just letting it blaze. That seemed to do the trick. Meanwhile, there were maybe 20 people dancing leisurely and gracefully around the fire. It wasn't any sort of wild, jumping dance - much more subdued and gentle with a lot of wrist turning and swaying to the methodical beat of the drums. Some of the dancers took it seriously and moved with confidence and enjoyment, while others looked like they must be rolling their eyes at having to perform the ceremony. Between each of the four dances, some would whip out their cellphones and check their text messages and attend to their social lives quickly. Then back to the next dance. After the third dance they brought out a small vat of the local alcohol called Banar wine. There were no cups, so if we wanted a taste we would have to suck it up using the same plastic straw as everyone else. Mom and I took the risk and tried some. It was pretty good with a rich, sweet flavor. We learned later that it was made from cassava, which was surprising as cassava (aka: tapioca) is not very tasty stuff. And on the last dance, Mom and I were convinced to join the circle and dance with the ladies. The dance moves were the same as in the Macarena song that was so popular back in the 90's, but slowed down to match the steady drum beat. Even then, I just couldn't do it. It was too slow for my mind to recall the motions correctly. And my embarrassment at looking like such a fool next to the graceful women didn't help either. So I circled round the fire with them once and then ducked out back to Chuck's side. Once that dance finished, the girls gathered round and sang a couple of really beautiful folk songs (I assume they were folk songs at least - for all I know they could have been the top Vietnamese pop songs of the day though) and then it was over. Half of the villagers disappeared into the darkness while the other half stuck around to laugh and goof with each other. We headed to our taxi and back into town. Passing over the same bridge we had stopped at on the way there, we saw about 8 different couples sitting in the pitch dark sharing romantic time with one another. It must be the “make-out point” of Kontum. Bed time followed not long after arriving back at the hotel.

We checked out on the 29th, picked up from our hotel in the morning by our private taxi. Our sightseeing began just 20 km out of town at a site known as Skull Hill. One of the most ruthless battles of the Vietnam war took place there when the North and South Vietnamese armies fought for control of the area. The Southerners were killed to the last man. A weathered, lonely monument stands there today. We spent 15 minutes learning about the battle and in which directions Laos and Cambodia were (we were quite close to the borders there), then moved on to the next point of interest: Charlie Hill. This was the site of another bloody battle in which the South Vietnam army fought to the last man. The hill was a few kilometers from the road, so we just stopped along the shoulder and took a look from a distance. I think it's still covered in land mines too, which would make it un-explorable for the average tourist. Looking at it from a distance though, it looks just like any other hill. It's amazing how easily time and nature can hide even the deepest pain of the past. From there we headed into the town of Dak To where there was another monument. It was joined by two tanks in a courtyard surrounded by a fence. It was obviously not well maintained as the fountain was dry and dirty, and grass and plants were growing out of cracks in the sidewalk. This lack of upkeep was something we were learning to expect from Vietnam. Oh, there was also this little boy, maybe five years old, who followed us around from the time we entered the monument courtyard to the time we left. He never spoke to us, never asked for anything, hardly even looked at us. He just followed us around with disinterest. Rather strange. Back in the taxi we headed north a ways to a the site of an old, large American base, now home to a rubber tree plantation. You could see evidence of its history if you kept your eyes open for scraps of cloth and destroyed concrete foundations, but otherwise, it looked like just a rubber farm. We kept having to leap over these trenches that the farmers had dug to separate the different fields. We even got somewhat lost once. Our guide spoke to some of the field workers and got us back on track, though. We headed back to the taxi and up the road to a big intersection that took you to Laos or Cambodia, depending on which direction you chose. It was a brief stop, just long enough for Chuck and I to get a photo with the "Ho Chi Minh Trail" road sign. Another long stretch of driving later, we arrived at what was supposedly Dak Seang, the place my Dad and been stationed. I don't know if it really was the same exact place, or if the guide just took us to some small, old base and claimed it was Dak Seang. I suppose that ultimately didn't matter. It's enough that we are happy to believe that it was the real deal. From my Dad's brief descriptions of the place, it was small, surrounded by jungle, and filled with lion-cloth-clad members of the Sedang tribe. Today it's home to a small village (the specific ethnicity of the inhabitants is unknown to me), their wooden houses lining a strip of dirt road that runs 500 meters from the highway and ends at a rubber tree plantation (there are a lot of these in Vietnam). There were bits of what looked like an old airstrip, its crumbling remains only visible in a few scattered spots. There were a couple of small concrete structures that didn't seem to be in keeping with the construction of the rest of the village that I thought might have been leftovers from an old base. Other than that, it was just a village. Thanks to our guide, we were invited to watch an old woman weaving some cloth on a loom that wrapped around her waist as she sat on the floor of the doorway to her home. There were two kids with her that were pretty interested in staring at us instead of the TV that was on in the back of the room. We, in turn, watched the woman for a few minutes before thanking her and moving on to take in the rest of the area. We wandered up and down the dirt road for a bit before deciding that we had seen all that we were going to see and piled back in the car. We traveled on and found ourselves entranced by the beautiful tropical mountain scenery of the the central highlands. Lush jungles mingled with patches of deforestation and crop lands. Small towns and villages with tall roonghouses passed us by. The wind blowing through the open windows was crisp and fresh and the sun was managing to hold its own against the encroaching clouds. It felt almost magical to me. I had a very hard time picturing a bloody war being waged in such a lovely place. The two visions just don't at all match. We stopped at one of the roonghouses along the highway and were allowed to go inside. The whole thing was made of wood, bamboo, and ratan, from the floors to the ceiling. We made one last stop at the home of a young lady who was in the market for a husband. How did we know this? Well, we didn't know, but our guide did. In front of her house was a large pile of perfectly chopped wood, all stacked in a nice and neat, ten foot tall rectangular pile. This was like an advertisement saying "I'm looking for a man - look how good I can chop the wood. I'll chop your wood all day, baby." Or something along those lines, at least. I couldn't quite figure out if firewood is still used a lot these days or if the wood chopping is more of a tradition now than a practicality. But supposedly, it still means that a young lady is looking for a husband. After that last stop, our sightseeing was over. Good timing too because only an hour later it began pouring down rain. It was straight on to Hoi An from there.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Nha Trang

The ride to Nha Trang was not bad at all. The reclined seat-beds made sleeping and relaxing much more comfortable than on a regular bus, even though they were perhaps a bit small for the Western-sized person. Our first rest stop of the trip introduced us to an interesting bathroom experience. There was an attendant who controlled strictly the flow of traffic into the restroom, only letting you in once you had slipped on one of the pairs of community slippers. There weren't enough slippers for everyone to go in at once, so we had to wait our turn. Once I was up, I slid out of my shoes and slipped into a pair that had just come off the feet of some random stranger. It was kind of strange, but it seemed to keep the bathroom quite clean. The whole place was bright white, the floors and stalls shining with water from a recent spray down. It's much nicer when they spray the bathroom down like that because you at least know the water on the floor isn't just urine. I've gone into a squat toilet many a time to find the floor covered in water, never sure how much is pee and how much is spillage from the process of cleansing your bottom with the water bucket. Gimme a freshly sprayed bathroom any day. After going potty and handing our shoes off to the next toilet-goers, we grabbed some snacks (Mom got a kilo of rambutans for something like $0.50) and hit the road again. Another stop was made a while later for lunch and at some point after sunset we finally arrived in Nha Trang. Our bus dropped us off right in front of a hotel they had colluded with, leaving us to fight off their advances as we collected our bags and got our bearings. We decided we could walk to our hotel, having spotted it on the way into town. It ended up being further away than we had thought, but we made it without any problems. The lobby was a big, dimly lit room that opened like a garage onto the street. As we checked in, the receptionist told us that the power was out until 10:00 PM; that they had to ration the power due to droughts (they used hydroelectric power), so their power was turned off every other day. This was a strange, yet sensible (if you're a socialist) practice that seemed to be popular throughout Vietnam. We were fine with the inconvenience and happily hauled our bags up the 6 flights of stairs (no power means no elevator) to our rooms. The combination of hunger and heat sent us back onto the streets pretty quickly. We walked all the way back to where our bus dropped us off and beyond, to a great looking local restaurant that we had spotted as we came in to town. It was packed full of Vietnamese folks and the World Cup was playing on a few big screens around the perimeter. Their menu was impressively diverse, making it hard to choose. We settled on some curry, morning glory, fried boar, and stir fried bull penis. Chuck and I chose that last one - Mom wasn't so keen on it herself. How can you pass up a chance to try bull penis?? Come on! It ended up being... strange. It was very chewy, almost like gristle. Not very flavorful. But, at least I can say I've tried a bull penis. The morning glory was the best dish of the meal. It had little chunks of garlic that oozed deliciousness with each bite. We got so much food though, that we couldn't finish any of our dishes. We asked for three rices (one for each of us) and they brought us each a huge plate piled with white rice. I don't know why they didn't warn us that their rice portions were so huge. Maybe they figured us Westerners like to eat huge amounts of food? Or maybe that's how much a Vietnamese person can eat. I don't know. But we ended up leaving a ton of food on the table, even after stuffing ourselves full in an attempt to lessen it. We waddled back to the hotel, where we were happy to discover that the power had been restored a bit earlier than expected. We hung out for a bit, planning our activities for the next day, then headed off to bed.

Mom woke up early on the 23rd, where as we woke up comparatively kind of late. Mom had seen the sunrise and had eaten a Western style buffet breakfast hours before we opened our eyes. So by the time we were ready to go, she was getting hungry again, which was perfect because we were hungry too. So we walked back towards the place we had eaten at the night before, looking for something good along the way. We found a pho shop that had a good selection, giving me the opportunity to order something new: seared beef pho. It was like a fried noodle pancake topped with stir fried beef and veggies. Pretty good. Once full we grabbed a taxi and set off to our first destination, affectionately known as the Big Buddha. This was one of our must-see sites in all of Vietnam, but not because the Buddha statue is anything fantastic. It's because my Dad has a photo of himself in front of the statue from when he was stationed there 40 years ago, during the war. Both Mom and I were pretty thrilled to visit this place that Dad had stood, with photo evidence, 40 years ago. When he was practically just a young kid, thrown into a crazy situation. The town of Nha Trang and that Buddha were a little part of some of the biggest changes in his life. Changes that were always so far removed from our family life when growing up, but always so present just because they had shaped him into the person he is. And here I was going to get to stand in that same spot and look at the same statue, just the way he had. Why do people like to do that? Visit places that those who are important to them have been? I guess it's just another way to relate to those experiences of theirs that you never got to share in. So yeah, I was looking forward to the Big Buddha. I had even printed out a bad quality copy of the photo of Dad from those many years ago to take with us. So, we pulled up to the temple complex where the statue was located, pre-haggled with the taxi driver on a price to our next destination, and went into the courtyard. It was a hot, hot day and everything looked bleached white thanks to the blinding properties of the sun. The temple courtyard had a lovely dragon mosaic surrounded by a variety of potted plants, but I could hardly see them thanks to the glare (perhaps I'm exaggerating just a bit). Wandering up the stairs we came to the temple itself, which was closed just then. As we were peeking through the slats on the door an old man greeted us and kindly advised that I cover my shoulders (I was wearing a tank top), which I did using my handy-dandy shawl I bought way back in Turkey. That thing has been so useful. He spoke a bit of English which he then used to ask us if we would like to see the laying Buddha, which was supposedly also closed, like the temple, but he could show it to us using his special temple privileges. We figured he was looking for money, but since the visit was a special occasion for us, we went along with the ploy. He led us around the side of the temple and up some stairs to a little gated area. Just inside was the laying Buddha, the soles of his/her feet decorated with a star burst swastika. The old man whipped out a pack of incense and tore it open. Before accepting the proffered scented sticks I asked him how much it would cost. He claimed there was no charge. The incense was free. I had my doubts, but whatever. It ended up being a neat experience, and worth the $5 he asked as a donation for the temple in the end (see, the incense was free). He lit and gave us each three sticks of incense which we were instructed to hold between our palms, with our hands in a position of prayer. He led us to various points around the Buddha and had us make three little bows at each spot. Once we had bowed enough, he led us to a bowl of sand into which we stuck our incense and said one last prayer. Or pretended to do so at least. Even though I felt pretty silly the entire time, I thought it was worth the few bucks to be led through the mildly religious experience. After that he sent us on our way, up the remaining steps to the big Buddha. As it came into view over the last set of stairs I realized that I had slightly underestimated it's size. It was definitely big. And white. So white that it kind of hurt to look at him. To add annoyance to my awe, I noticed that there were quite a lot of people all crowded around the base of the statue looking rather relaxed and settled in. This meant that all of our photos had a rag tag group of random people huddled in the background. And we took a lot of photos. I took a picture of the picture of Dad, held up in vague alignment with the real-life statue, and I had one taken of myself posing the same way in the same spot as him. Then there were photos of me and Mom, just me, just Mom, me and Chuck, and just the Buddha. Too many pictures. And it was too hot. We stayed for about an hour before deciding we had adequately experienced the big Buddha. As we made our way back down the steps to our waiting taxi we discussed the sense that Dad's "presence" was no longer "there," if it ever really had been. It was neat to see one of the distant places he had been to, but it wasn't as profound an experience as one might have hoped. Even so, we were happy to have gone. Our next stop was the Oceanographic Museum, aka: the aquarium. The entrance fee was steep at a whopping $0.80 a person. Nearly broke the bank on that place. It was a somewhat run-down, basic aquarium, but surprisingly good and entertaining. They had a nice variety of interesting fish and creatures, and the tanks were clean and clear, if not a bit small perhaps. It was bigger than it had appeared from the front entrance, so we kept being surprised at finding another row of tanks, or a sea turtle pool, or the sea lion. The sea lion was great because we weren't expecting him at all. We had just finished looking at row of aquariums and turned the corner to find the little guy bobbing up and down in his outdoor pool, staring at us as if he had been expecting our arrival. Mom and I hung around staring back at him for a good 15 minutes before moving on. The last bit of the aquarium was a room chock full of ocean specimens, preserved in rows and rows and rows of glass containers. They were stacked floor to ceiling and wall to wall with small aisles breaking it all up into a semblance of order. They even had a giant glass case that contained a preserved manatee. I was impressed. It was actually quite a good aquarium. If you're ever in Nha Trang, I recommend a visit. We made our way back to our waiting taxi and headed back to the hotel. We had been out for a good few hours already, so it was about time we took a break. We paid the taxi the agreed fare, but as we made to walk away he told us that we hadn't given him the right amount. "Fifteen," we told him. "That's fifteen, right there." He shook his head and spoke with punctuated pronunciation. "Fif-ty." I got pretty annoyed at the mix up, and to this day I can't figure out whether the guy had done it on purpose and had actually told us fifteen to begin with, or whether we misunderstood him due to his accent, and he really wasn't trying to swindle us. The more I thought on it, the more I suspect he was an honest guy. He hadn't tried to swindle us during the rest of our rides, and when I looked up the general pricing for taxis online, 50,000 dong would have been about right for the distance of that last ride. So then I felt bad about getting out of the taxi in a bit of a huff and not even thanking him. And to make us look like even worse butthead tourists, when Chuck shut the car door he managed to break the little plastic rain guard thing that ran along the upper edge of the window. It wasn't that he slammed the door or anything - he just managed to press on its weak spot as he shut it. But still. I have lingering guilt. We relaxed in the AC of our hotel rooms (luckily, we had power that day) until close to sunset, when we decided an ice cream was in order. A little cafe down the road and across from the beach satisfied our cravings. Mom tried the durian ice cream which was just as pungent as it is in its natural state. I could smell it from across the table. The beach called to us as the sun dipped below the horizon, so we went to sit on the sand and people watch for a while. I took a ton of photos of the unsuspecting Vietnamese beach goers as they played in the water or picnicked on the shore. Sunset must be the time to go to the beach, because it seemed like practically the whole city was there. I guess it must be nicer at sunset because you avoid all those intense noon rays. Vietnamese folks are much smarter than many people in the States in this regard. I also noticed that most women wore shirts and shorts into the water, just like in Thailand. There were some ladies in two-piece suits, but mostly they liked to stay covered. The impending darkness eventually convinced us to seek out food. Mom and I stopped into a Vietnamese embroidery shop we came across while searching. They had some really lovely pieces of work in there, all stitched in fine, shimmery thread on delicate fabrics of different colors. The tiny stitches blended together to make a beautiful, shimmery scene similar to one of those etched metal pictures that catch the light on all their angles as you move it around. Mom ended up getting a smaller piece for herself that depicted a cluster of bamboo. Finished with shopping, we all headed to a street we had passed by the previous night that was lined with street cart restaurants. It took us forever to choose one, but it was worth it because the food ending up being quite good. We were also lucky enough to be serenaded by a Vietnamese boy. It all began when Chuck decided to wave at the kid when he noticed him watching us. The boy's parents saw this and came to say hello and ask us where we were from and all that. The kid was all shy and smiley as we chatted, but when his parents told him (yes, they didn't give him much option to decline) to sing us one of the English songs he knew, he sang with confidence and gusto. The song he chose was the one typically played at New Years: Should old acquaintance be forgot, la dee da dee daaa. He was pretty good. Can you imagine a Vietnamese family visiting the States or Australia and having some English-speaking kid sing a Vietnamese song for them? Granted, English is spoken much more widely, but still. It was really nice that he sang us a song. Very sweet. After dinner we meandered back to the hotel, stopping for some tapioca tea, or sugar cane juice, or a couple of beers along the way. I fell asleep pretty quickly that night.

The 24th was another big day. A big day of snorkeling. We were going with a small tour group, so the first 30 minutes of the day were spent driving around town picking up other group members. Once everyone had been collected we headed to the docks and aboard our boat. It was a well used, 30 to 40 foot long vessel made of very sturdy looking wood. I thought she and her captain were well suited for each other as he also looked well used and sturdy, but always with a smile on his crinkled face. He hustled everyone aboard and we set off into the bay, along with the other numerous boats that were also running tours. We puttered past floating villages and small islands as we made our way out to the where the reefs were most beautiful. The captain pointed out the local theme park on one of the bigger islands, and some swallow caves where the nests used in birds nest soup were harvested. At one point I turned to look at the cockpit and saw that there was no one inside. No one was steering the boat. We weren't in any danger of course, but I got up to investigate. I poked my head inside, and sure enough, the tiny room was empty. Then one of the crew members came by and saw me being all curious, so he encouraged me with a wave of his hands to go ahead and steer. I sidled nervously into place behind the big wooden wheel and pretended to know what I was doing. He gave me vague directions in Vietnamese, which I didn't understand, but he seemed to be happy with my course and left me to it. Luckily, we were far enough away from anything crash-able that I wasn't able to endanger anyone. When it came time to actually steer into position at the dive location, one of the crew took over again. We were given masks, snorkels, and flippers, and were set free to explore the waters as we liked. I think I was the first in and the last out. I spent a good long time snorkeling around the little reef. It was just so amazingly beautiful! There was so much life and color. Blue, purple, green, and yellow coral. Angel fish, parrotfish, pufferfish (they're so cute with their little smiley face and huge eyes), needlefish. Hermit crabs, giant clams, sea cucumbers, starfish, spiral fans that pop into the rock when you get too close. Who knows what else was out there that I didn't manage to spot. I could have spent hours poking my nose around the rocks and corals, chasing fish, and picking up starfish. But instead, after an hour or so I was called back to the boat for lunch. It was a feast, with tons of food, but we barely touched it. I found myself reluctant to eat too much because the group of skinny, cute girls on our tour barely ate anything and I didn't want to look like a pig. So I ate until I was just full and then acted as though I didn't want anymore. It's good that I didn't stuff myself, but it's silly that I let their actions influence me so much. Oh well. It happens. As we were eating we were being driven over to another snorkeling site where we hopped back in the water for some more reef explorations. Once again, it was lovely. After that we motored over to an island and went for a swim near one of the many floating villages. No snorkeling this time, just swimming. They had these round boats in the shape of a plastic kiddy pool, with glass bottoms. You could pay to hop in one and paddle around the island with a guide. We didn't do that, but some other girls on our tour did and they seemed to really get a kick out of it. Back on the boat we were served some more food - a nice assortment of fruit. I felt more inclined to indulge this time around and ate my fill of bananas, watermelon, dragonfruit, and pineapple. The fruit feast signaled the end of the tour, so we gathered our stuff together and put our dry clothes back on over our wet bathing suits. We headed back to the docks and back into the van to be dropped off at our respective hotels. It was during this ride that we began to notice that our backsides were feeling a bit tender. Worries about sunburns entered our minds, but only time would tell whether we had been afflicted. So we retired to our rooms and took a short rest during which bright pink sunburns bloomed into place on our backs. Despite having liberally applied sunscreen at the beginning of the day and touching up once after lunch, we had all three managed to get nicely burned, especially around our lower backs. We were supposed to make the 10 hour trip to Kontum the next day, but with the onset of painful burns, we would have to rethink that. In the meantime, we wanted to check emails and such, and with our hotel's power being out that day, we walked down the road until we found a snazzy looking hotel with a cafe that offered wifi. We ordered expensive drinks and did the internet thing. Mom and I were finished before Chuck was, so we decided to head back to the hotel without him. It wasn't until we stepped into the lobby that I realized Chuck had the key to mine and his room. I had been hoping to sit on the patio balcony outside our room to watch the beach from up high and hopefully get a breeze. But that wasn't a possibility without the key. So Mom invited me to hang out in her room where we both sighed a lot and commented on how ridiculously hot it was. No AC and no balcony kept the heat at the forefront of our minds. After an hour Chuck showed up with a guilty smile and the key. We kept the rest of the evening very simple. Dinner was eaten at a seafood joint just around the corner from us - Chuck had some really good clams. As soon as the power came on back at the hotel, we switched on the AC and settled down for the night.

I had asked Mom to wake me up for the sunrise (since she was always up at that time anyways), so I wasn't surprised when I was woken by a knock at the door before it was bright outside. I managed to drag myself up to let Mom in and we went out to the patio balcony to watch the sun come up over the water. It was similar to the other few sunrises I've managed to wake up for - pretty with pinks and oranges and yellows. While enjoying the sight Mom told me that her sunburn was probably not so bad that she couldn't travel and we decided to see if we could go ahead and book a bus for later in the morning. Then I went back to bed. Long story short, we woke up too late for the bus and decided we may as well just go the next day instead. This gave us a day to sit around and do nothing, which was pretty nice since we'd been hitting the sites pretty hard for the past four or five days. We all went out for some breakfast around 9:00 AM, I got some blogging done for the rest of the morning, Chuck and I went to a sushi place for lunch, got some pictures sorted on my computer, etc. We went back to the seafood place from the night before for dinner. We got a small feast that included tuna, tiger prawns (they were huge), cockles (a type of bivalve mussel), and some crab-that-was-not-crab. I call it that because I swear, it was crab. But the waiter kept insisting that it was not crab, although he couldn't remember the name of what it was. It was crab. I'm quite sure. And it was pretty good, although I was missing the melted butter sauce that goes so well with the crab flavor. The cockles weren't that great - the clams from the night before had a much nicer flavor. But all in all, it was a pretty good seafood meal. Mom and I headed down the road in search of snacks for our long bus ride the next day. Pringles were a must as I do love my travel Pringles. Not sure now I developed this mild obsession with Pringles, but it is what it is. We found a few more things in an actual grocery store - you know, like with aisles and a refrigerated section and a cashier. The lining-up-to-pay process must still be a new thing in Vietnam. I had been waiting in line for five minutes perhaps when a Vietnamese woman finished up shopping and came to check out. She went straight up to the cash register rather than wait at the end of the line. I've experienced this lack of line-mentality before and realize that it's nothing personal, and it wasn't as if she was trying to be rude because she's some kind of mean spirited person. It's just a cultural thing. So working in that same mentality, I rushed her to the register and plunked my stuff on the counter just as she was setting her basket there. The cashier was versed in the art of "line" and told the woman that she would have to wait in it. She rang me up as the woman looked around and suddenly noticed that, holy cow, there was a line. She didn't seem to have much problem with waiting her turn once it all clicked in her mind. I find the cultural differences in waiting your turn (or not waiting) to be pretty interesting. It's one of those things that you don't stop to think about, and can be so offensive to others who may not be aware that there are differences. To me, the line system makes a lot of sense, but I'm sure to many others around the world it doesn't. I pondered all this on the way back to the hotel. Then I slept.

We all woke up early on the 26th. We packed and checked out. A taxi took us to the bus station where we had to exchange our receipts for the actual bus tickets. At the ticket window a man was talking to someone on a phone that had been stretched through the little hole in the glass. So I waited. After a few minutes, another woman came up and just stuck her receipt through the window, past the guy on the phone. They helped her out with no problem, so I did the same. See - that whole concept of waiting. It's very different to different people. Tickets in hand, all we had to do now was wait for the bus to arrive. Chuck and I got a banh mi (a baguette, or sub as we like to call them in the States) while waiting. When the bus showed up we were surprised to see that it was not a bus, but a van. We climbed in and took our assigned spots in the very last seat. The van quickly filled up until there was a body in every seat. Thirteen people in all. The trip to Kontum looked like it would be an interesting one to put it kindly.