Well, it has been quite a while since we last posted a blog update… I’m going to go ahead and blame that on the crappy internet service throughout the Philippines! If there’s anything we have learned in the almost month we have spent traveling through this beautiful country, it’s that wifi is patchy at best, if it even exists. Also that they call it rainy season for a reason, and we definitely fit in better with “other” retirees than people our own age.
So a couple weeks ago we arrived in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, and were greeted with a few hours of power outage that evening, of which we spent in a McDonald’s as it was the only place with a generator – eating ice creams and loving the AC. We also got $2 haircuts and were prepared to leave early the next day to travel by bus for 5 or 8 hours to El Nido. On the bus ride, I started chatting with a girl named Kelsey as we were both on either side of a teenage boy who was squeezed in between us and completely crushing us around every sharp curve we took. Come to find out, she was also heading to El Nido to join to Tao Excursion leaving the following day – so we’d not only be bus friends, but see each other all day every day for the following 5 days!
The next day, we left on our Tao excursion as planned – setting off for a five day adventure on a boat (with rough seas at times!) stopping at different remote islands and beaches along the way, with plenty of snorkeling, rum drinking, swimming and lounging, whilebeing entertained by our amazing crew the whole time and stuffed until we were going to burst with some of the most amazing food we have eaten yet in the Philippines. The weather was half and half, we did have some rainy days, but are lucky to have had as many sunny parts of the days as we did given that it is the beginning of monsoon season. We stayed in different Tao camps each night, which although advertised as “roughing it” came equipped with toiley bowls, lights, mattresses, etc. So it was actually quite luxurious compared to some of the places wehave stayed thus far on our travels. We were lucky to have so many awesome people on the trip with us, with a huge ‘Merica representation and many of whom we will definitely stay in touch with! The Tao trip was absolutely incredible, amazing, beautiful…. there simply are not enough adjectives to describe it!
Luckily, docking on dry ground again (in Coron) wasn’t too rough, as our whole crew of new friends were staying in Coron as well, and we were able to see them for nightly dinners and enjoy some more laughs and drinks!! We were unable to go diving while in Coron, which is a shame because there are some world famous wrecks that people go there specifically to dive…… perils of rainy season. We still got to get rained on and eat bananas on a boat with our girl B while awaiting the coast guard’s decision, then when it was officially called off, headed for some Hot Springs and enjoyed nature’s hot tub for a bit before I got a massage. Overall, still a lovely day!
After a couple days in Coron, it was time for us to make our way over to Boracay to “live” for a while. We bid farewell to our new friends, and made our way to the teeny airport, feeling car sick the entire time. Unfortunately for me, that nauseous feeling never went away – and we had to take another two hour bus ride, followed by a ferry ride, and then a tricycle ride. After a long day of travel, it was quite the reward to get the keys to our very own APARTMENT for the next 8 nights!! It doesn’t take much to impress us these days…. separate bedrooms complete with our own AC’s, a HOT shower (first time in the Philippines), toilet with a flusher, a stove and a fridge!!! We originally only booked four nights at the new digs, and almost immediately decided we woul d be staying the full 8 until it was time for us each to fly out of Manila.
The apartment was such a great decision! We were able to completely unpack our bags for the week, go grocery shopping, wake up whenever we want, do whatever we want, watch a lot of crappy tv (I used to love wedding shows on TLC, now they just make me angry which is kind of sad – my crappy tv life at home may never be the same) and just have no agenda. We are just two more “retired” members of the community we are staying in: Dagny, Kristy, many old white dudes and one woman. The first night we showed up at trivia at the local bar in front of the apartment, and were greeted with many smiles and confused glances. A self-proclaimed conspiracy theorist named Lord sat with us, and we still lost the game. Since that evening, we have not seen Lord again. Hmmm…maybe one of those UFO’s he talked about finally came for him.
We have slept about 10-12 hours per night, which has been beyond glorious, with the exception of the day we went diving and had to wakeup at 7. We did two dives with a stylish Filipino heartbreaker named Ronny, and although the second one was pretty cool and we got to see lots of teeny shrimp and nudibranches, we have realied that we learned to dive in one of the most beauitful locations in the world (Borneo) and other places simply cannot compete. Don’t get me wrong, each dive is still awesome even if just for the fact that we start to feel more and more comfortable as we dive more. In fact, this last stint here in Boracay – I had not one freakout underwater (which hasnt happened yet) and was flailing my arms around less, and actually looking around and enjoying the scenery more instead o f being so hyperfocused on where the instructor or Dagny was, or what my air tank had left in it. In other words, finally starting to relax!!
We also went ziplining, and will likely go parasailing before our time here in Boracay is over after this weekend and we fly out to Manila. Dagny has got some special plans up her sleeve for today (that she is struggling to keep a secret from me… secrets are hard!) to celebrate my birthday early before we go our separate ways. I can’t believe we are finally at this point of our trip, sometimes it feels like we just left home yesterday while other days it feels like it has been years! Dagny is heading back to the States for a few weeks for her best friend Leah’s wedding and to spend some quality family time. I am flying to Taiwain for a few days to visit a friend before Dave meets me in Hong Kong where we are starting a 2 week vacation!
I imagine neither of us will be updating the blog while with our friends/family/boyfriend… so see ya again in August 🙂 🙂 🙂
Beaches, barbeque and back in the land of cheap beer….the island life of the Philippines had been tempting us for months and we are finally here! After a brief stopover in Manila we arrived in Bohol and immediately the laid back vibe of the Philippines had us forgetting about the hectic pace of Malaysia and instead spending our evenings watching sunsets over the water, eating barbeque chicken and returning the ever present greetings of “hello sister…..how are you sister?”. The juxtaposition of catholicism in Asia after so many months of Buddhism wasn’t as jarring as we thought…perhaps because the Philippines seems more a part of South America than Asia? Men wear gold crosses around their neck, calling out “hey beautiful” as we walk by, nuns take the place of buddhist monks in the streets and taxi cab drivers ask us if we are christian before we even get to the name exchange phase of the conversation….its Asia but its not (Same same but different).
After getting a room in Alona Beach and renting some scooters off of a man named Dao and his borhter Dennis we were ready to explore our little island. We headed off to the capital city Tagbilon for a much needed hospital visit for Kristy…diving left her with some ear difficulties, which after a few hours of waiting in the hospital waiting room for the ENT were easily solved with thirty dollars and a weeks worth of decongestants….and after the fourth cockroach we were both a bit more appreciative of our respective hospitals. Back on the road again we swung by the Bohol Bee Farm for a delcious lunch of fish tacos (me) and chicken tacos (kristy) overlooking the impossibly aquamarine water. After four months without any significant beach time we were two ladies on a mission….we stumbled upon a dirt road leading to a beachfront resort and for 25 pesos each we parked our bike and enjoed the white sand beach, cool blue water and all the facilites of the resort. Our first afternoon was spent lounging in the shade and enjoying the million dollar view our 50 cents had bought us…not bad Bohol, not bad at all.Resort poaching
Bohol is famous for two things…Tarsiers and the Chocolate Hills, thus the next day’s threatening skies would not deter us in our quest….motobiking Bohol and uncovering the elusive creature was to be our first stop. Of course an hour into our two hour ride the rain came….and kept coming, being the motobiking pros we are one would think we came prepared with a rain coat, poncho or at least a sweater, except the previous days sunshine lulled us into a false sense of security and like fools we were left with just skimpy rompers and sarongs. Shivering, we finally pulled into the sanctuary, with low expectations we entered but our guide found us 5 tarsiers all asleep in trees and they were just as adorable as we had heard. Some may say they look like gremlins or Yoda, but these adorable little primates are one of the world smallest primates and nearing extinction. Many sanctuaries are based around pleasing tourists and keep these little guys in cages and take them out only for photo-ops….Tarsiers are sensitive little guys and the stress of a cage cause them to commit suicide (they bang their head against the cage until they die) and tourists handling them often times results in broken bones. Not wanting tarsier blood on our hands we opted for the Bohol Tarsier Sanctuary which provides a cage free environment with acres for them to roam. They. Were. Adorable.
The rain was starting to lessen as we left the sanctuary so we decided to brave the windy roads leading to the chocolate hills, hoping desperately the rain didn’t start downpouring again. The ride itself was through small towns and villages, with untouched jungle all around, and at one point we road through a man made forest which was incredibly surreal and beautiful. After a cold hour’s ride with our soaked clothes clinging to us we enjoyed a grilled cheese and hot chocolate before ascending to the viewpoint. In the dry season these green mounds are actually brown and look like chocolate drops, legend says that a giant name Arogo fell in love with a mortal, her death caused him so much pain and misery he could not stop crying and when his tears dried they formed the Chocolate Hills. A less romantic version is that the hills are made of a giant’s poop….we will stick with the tears version….. To add to our good karma we even gave two guys a lif on the back of our motos on the way home.
With those two items checked off our Bohol bucket list our final day was spent exploring Panglao island on our motos, making friends with the locals on the beaches away from the tourist drag and making another visit to the bee farm….we are suckers for a good drink and great view.
A short ferry and long local bus ride later we were dropped off in the middle of nowhereBoljoon town, 25 kilometers north of Oslob on Cebu. With Kristy’s ear still a problem diving was off the table but luckily snorkeling with the whale sharks was still a great option and a bit cheaper! We got up super early and flagged down a local bus (really the new zealnd girl with us sprinted after it for us….) and made our way south. We arrived and waited in line with lots of chinese tourists, but also Filapino tourist as well, but luckily the three of us got our own boat.
As our boat captain was yelling go under and trying to snap pictures of us with these giant creatures, we were slightly terrified of the hulking creature inches from our bodies…but the pictures will be worth a few tail punches right? We watched these beautiful gentle giants for our half hour of allotted time and were so thankful we didnt waste a dive….the whale sharks were all at the surface and within few feet of us. We topped off our magical morning by grabbing a couple of motos to the nearby waterfall and spending a relaxing hour swimming in its cold water and remembering what cool feels like….we don’t feel that too often these days and have come to treasure it. An entire rotisserie chicken dinner later we made moves t head up north and set our alarms for 430am (yup thats four thirty) to catch the local bus to Cebu City.
Two buses, a taxis, a ferry and a motoride later we arrived at our resort, that’s right, a RESORT. Don’t worry, its a dive resort with 6 dollar a night dorm rooms. Thresher cove resort provided us with a pool, gorgeous beach and most importantly cheap dives to see the thresher sharks. We spent a day recovering from our 14 hour travel day, relaxing on the beach and taking a small boat to different snorkel sites along the island’s coast. Slightly apprehensive to dive without our beloved dive instructor we woke up with the sun to see the renowned thresher sharks. We got luck and spotted a few, but they were no where as close as the previous day’s dive, however in our case this was not a bad thing and in fact was slightly reassuring. We continued our theme for the day with two more dives off of Gato Island, exploring an underwater cave and spotting 7 white tipped sharks, along with seahorses, nemos and other magical delights under the sea (no dinglehoppers though). With 9 dives now under our belts, and only a few minor and well desereved freak outs we are feeling like dive pros….or at least can have a beer at the end of the day with the real divers.
It may not be the SOutheast ASia we have grown to know and love but so far the Philippines has wooed us with its spicy charm, delicious BBQ chicken and the world’s cutest kids (okay we may say this in every country but we mean it this time…) Palawan here we come!
Starting off our journey through Malaysia in the very cosmopolitan city of Kuala Lumpur provided us with a dose of culture shock we weren’t quite ready for. People yelling and rushing around mixed with the lack of motorbikes and the presence of a public transit system made us realize we were in a different kind of Asia then we had gotten used to over the last few months… this Asia much more closely resembling Western lifestyles back home. Once we were able to cope with this fast-paced lifestyle, we were able to appreciate the magnificent cultural melting pot that is KL, including the various types of food available in the city. We stumbled across the first annual Big Kitchen festival, which was a great evening filled with lots of food, weird desserts and dancing! I indulged in some shopping [old habits really do die hard] and we finally enjoyed bird watching (I have stranegly been wanting to do this for about 11 months pre-departure… so a long long time)
After KL, we split up for a few days for some much needed R&R. After 5 months of travel and constantly being on the go, we were both longing for a private room where we could just sleep in and lounge all we wanted, watch trashy tv/movies and not have to feel bad about not having any real plans or sightseeing… just like any lazy Sunday would have been back home. My experience was made that much better by the fact that my room didn’t have windows, so I didn’t have any issues napping each day and still not getting out of bed until 10!
After a few days of pool poaching and talking to nobody except hotel staff, we were both anxious to meet back up with each other in Penang and continue our adventures! We had been looking forward to this food lover’s paradise since the early planning stages of our trip, before even arriving in Asia. Having been pretty hyped up in our minds, Penang didn’t quite meet our expectations. It was still a lovely place and we certainly enjoyed the two days we spent there (eating lots of Indian food and watching live music performances at the local hawker, station) however we were ready to move on to the Cameron Highlands and not spend the week we initially had pictured on the island.
Cameron Highlands continued our streak of hard love with Malaysia, taking an extra 2 hours on an already very long bus ride to get there because of a 2 week school holiday, and meaning that the area was a complete madhouse and tea plantations/strawberry farms we tried to visit were closed. Originally thinking we would enjoy the cooler weather and hikes for a few days, we decided upon arrival to spend one full day and leave the following. The hike was nice, short and sweet and poorly marked, and again – just not quite what we had in mind. The strawberry tea was definitely the highlight of the Cameron Highlands!
After another night in KL due to scheduling with bus/flights, we were ready to leave peninsualar Malaysia and head to Borneo Malaysia for some underwater adventures. As soon as we landed and could see the gorgeous scenery stretching for miles and were greeted kindly by locals – we knew that we’d jive a bit more with this part of the country.
Our terrifying hour-long ride from the airport to Semporna brought us by curbside fruit stands and chickens running through front yards, and we smiled at each other in appreciation for being out of the hustle and bustle and back to the laidback lifestyle the rest of Southeast Asia had gotten us accustomed to. Red knuckled and clutching to our seats, we arrived at Big John Scuba to sign some paperwork and get ready for our 3 day/2 night PADI open water diving certification course to start the next day. That evening, we had streetside noodles for the equivalent of $1.06 and some beers… happy happy happy
Morning came, and off we went to learn how to become real life mermaids. The island of Mabul captured our hearts, with electricity from 6PM – 6AM only and the most adorable children we have seen in a long time. The locals were all so warm and friendly, and our minimal Malay words went a long way in making everyone smile (maybe laugh at us, but we’ll just think of it as a kind smile). While here, we learned how to scuba dive. WE LEARNED HOW TO SCUBA DIVE!!!! We had an amazing instructor, Mark, who was extremely helpfup and patient with us (under the water, at least! haha)
The first dive was the scariest, learning to breathe underwater. Apparently nervousness makes one more bouyant, and I kept floating away from Dagny and Mark like the girl in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory who ate the blueberries. With each dive, we progressively got more comfortable under water – working on basic skills like clearing or masks if water filled in, swimming and breathing without our mask, what to do if our air aupply were to run low or be knocked out of our mouths, etc. We got to see beautiful ocean life under the sea, even at our max depth of 18m. This is definitely a hobby that we will both be partaking in a lot more, especially with our next destination being the Philippines (as long as my ears eventually clear up….)
Our time on Mabul flew by, and before we knew it was time to leave all our new friends behind – little 16 year old Allan who looked 12 and now has a sign from me to encourage him to quit smoking, Gerry, “Malay” and many others, including all the beautiful kind women who make up the kitchen staff. We made promises to come back, the simplicity of Mabul
That evening back in Semporna, it was time to celebrate being PADI certified, so we met up with Mark and Awang (his friend who also used to be an instructor and dove with us on our third day) for some San Miguels at the local dive, Arthur Bar. Here we made friends with many locals, and after endless beer and no dinner, thought moving on to a karaoke bar was the only logical next step. To open the night, Dagny and I serenaded everyone with Gangsta’s Paradise (well I did mostly as she couldn’t stop laughing and left me in the beginning to fend for myself!) Mark demonstrated his pole climbing skills, while Awang and Jazz sang their hearts out – not just busting out raps like D & I (we also did Fancy, if you wanna bad b!tch like this). The night was quite comical, and started our love affair of Asian karaoke bars.
Our time in Malaysia started off a bit rocky, but Borneo turned that right around for us… so much so that we are already trying to figure out when we can go back! 🙂
Because of the it’s sheer size and short visa allowances, Vietnam has definitely been the country where we have been on-the-go constantly, so why would be change that in our final four days before we all fly out? Instead of a laid back exploration of Hanoi or enjoying herbal hot-pots on a mountainside in Sapa, we decided to squeeze the most out of our final few days and motobike through Vietnam’s more remote countryside that tourists rarely see. After hearing a few motobike quotes that became grossly inflated once they learned we were leaving Sapa, we kept our cards close, got a little sneaky and eventually found a place that not only rented to us, but gave us a discount since we rented three bikes for three days (insert evil supervillain laugh here). We left Sapa with a full tank of gas, sporting new face masks and leaving vague assurances to the sweet couple renting us our bikes that we were exploring “around” Sapa and just staying in some homestays “a bit outside Sapa”.
We left Sapa behind us as we flew along mountain roads, with Mount Fanispan to our south we had great views of its cloudy ridges, until the road wound along the other side of the mountain pass, alternating between a hot sun with warm breeze on our skin and riding through cold, wet clouds depending on which side of the mountains the road took us. Never quite sure whether we should commit to putting on our ponchos or not, we were relieved when we left both the mountains and rain behind us. Intead, we road through rice paddy terraces lining gently sloping hills along the road to Tam Duong, our first big city stop on our road trip. Due to climate differences the rice paddies were not yet planted as those closer to Sapa were, therefore the scenery although beautiful, lacked the vibrant gradients of green terracing seen in every postcard of the region, instead there was lots of brown mud of not yet planted paddies. Water buffalo plowing and families preparing to start planting could be spotted along our tiny country road and it was nice to see “working vietnam”, even if it was just a tad less scenic.
As we entered Tam Duong we expected big things up ahead, the road had widened from a small country winding lane to a 3 lane divided highway. As we drove further through the small city, it became clear that the road was the largest thing about this sleep little town, with corn drying in the mostly unused highway that ran through its center, it was more of an agriculture based town with a large market at its center. We stopped for a cool drink in the local market, clearly the only tourists to swing by in quite a while, we sat with locals unable to share the same language, instead resorted to lots of smiles and the occasional hand gesture. We wandered though the market trying to find a toilet before heading off on the next leg of our journey, showing multiple people a napkin with “WC” written in sharpie (accompanied by Kristy miming peeing/squatting in a very awkward and very entertaining game of charades) we were pointed in a vague direction on the far end of the market. Finally giving up, Kristy wandered into the first home she saw and straight up asked to use the bathroom. Luckily, Luke the eldest son spoke english and not only let us all use his family’s bathroom, but he sat us around the table as the family ate lunch, gave us cold water and practiced his english with us. Our first indication that the people of nothern vietnam are indeed just as warm as the people we met along our southern route.
Bladders freshly emptied, we headed off for Lai Chau, the city we tentatively planned to spend our first night in. We rode through beautiful country lanes winding between small towns and villages, through the hilly countryside we cruised along roads lining strangely conical mountain peaks until we could see a mass of concrete buildings in the valley below-Lai Chau. We road through its eerily empty 6 lane roads until we found a small cafe, with no menu or english spoken we counted it as a life win when we managed to order “ca phe sua da” and “lipton sua da” aka iced coffee with milk and iced tea with milk. After too much caffeine and lots of discussion, we made the decision to continue riding since it was not yet 1pm and the city lacked enough charm to draw us in, despite a man made lake at its center and pyramidal mountains surrounding the valley. Knowing we could grow to regret the decision we ate a quick lunch of bun cha (delicious pork patties, fresh herbs, cucumbers, mango and noodles that we dip in the worlds most delicious broth) from a woman watching vietnamese soap operas along the side of the road (yesss soup operas!) and with a little trepidation but confident we could make it to Phong Tho before dark we set off again.
We followed the mile markers along those very same pyramidal peaks surrounding the city, the roads were small but cars were rare and the views below made it difficult to concentrate on the windy road curving along mountain edges, however the sheer cliff where the roadside ended did keep us focused enough to not drive over the edge(thus careening towards our deaths). After an hour or so of driving we exited the mountains and faced a split in the road that was not quite expected, deciding to go right (fifty-fifty shot right?) we would drive until we found the first mile marker and if the town listed wasn’t familiar turn around and go the other way- infallible plan right? Well we headed right, 4 kilometers down the road we spotted our first mile marker- Nam Cay 10km- a town that we were not supposed to hit until the next afternoon, confused as to how we would find it so soon we decided to turn around in case the left fork led to Phong Tho and unsure if Nam Cay would have any guesthouses. After just 2 kilometers past the fork we found a mile marker, this time for PaSo…..where had the Phong Tho mile markers gone? Unsure what PaSo was and where Phong Tho had gone we continued, deciding we would commit to the left fork and see where it brought us. Right around 4pm we road through a giant archway and into a town situated along a muddy red river.
Unsure what town we were in, Kristy and I made the bold move to find a guesthouse and sleep here; we could figure out where we were in the morning, Melissa a little freaked out by the idea of not knowing where she was sleeping for the night agreed- if only because the other alternative seemed to be driving in the dark towards a town we may never find. We hunted down the only Nha Nghi (guesthouse) in town, after a long round of charades with the girl at the desk we managed to book two rooms. Leaving the hotel on a mission to hunt down some wifi and find out where exactly we were spending our evening (and where we made our wrong turn), we decided to call the bluff of the “cafe” we biked past that advertised wifi. By “cafe” we mean a sugar cane cart pulled onto the riverbank surrounded by a dozen plastic tables and chairs. What were we thinking? this is Asia, of course the cart on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere was wifi; pretty soon we were sitting with the local moto drivers, eating peanuts, drinking sugarcane juice with google maps telling us we were in Phong Tho! With luck on our side, and no idea how we accidentally found the town, we decided to celebrate our life win with a round of beers, however translational errors led to three apple juice like drinks being placed on our table, with some strange pickled fruit in each glass. After drinking both our sugar cane juices and weird apple drink we made one last attempt and successfully ordered three beers. Studying our maps while enjoying our cold beers we also discovered that had we continued onto Nam Cay we would have accidentally stumbled into the Chinese border….on our motobikes with no licenses. Hmmmmm….glad we dodged that bullet. Although it took Melissa’s good sense to convince Kristy and myself not to drive to the border that was just 14km north of where we were sitting- when else will we be this close to China? But cool logic prevailed and we resisted the urge.
Dinner that evening was certainly a process, we stopped at a family run restaurant that had a giant sign reading “BUN, PHO, COM” and “BO, GA….” with our poor pronounciation leading us nowhere, we eventually opted for the surefire way to get food- more charades. Melissa was able to jump and point to each item and we ended up with delicious Bun BO and Bun Ga for dinner, we enjoyed the delicately flavored broth and bun noodles. As we left the restaurant its owner insisted we join him for green tea on the sidewalk table, somehow we managed to have conversation with this man with my four stock vietnamese phrases and a very entertaining game of charades (picture a middle aged vietnamese man fake kissing and pointing to a lovey woman to indicate thats his wife haha). More and more of his friends joined us and we had a wonderful and fun evening sipping green tea, giggling and horribly mispronouncing vietnamese words, after a long day of motoing though we were sure to make our escape before any rice wine was broken out.
As we had learned during our southern loop- rural vietnam means Pho for breakfast, so we filled our bellies with soup and despaired that we would find any coffee out here, heading off onto the hot riverside road uncaffeinated but ready for more adventures! We road through the river valley, wishing for the cool mountain air as the sun beat down on us and dust filled our face masks. The road was lined with many signs warning of landslides, sure enough it was only a few kilometers of driving before we found our first evidence with large boulders strewn across the road. The majority of the road was under constuction fixing damaged sections, even those areas not under construction frequently had rocks across them. We nervously watched the cliffs above us for rolling rocks and 50 kilometers later we finally made it to the town Nam Cay (different town same name- NOT the china border).
After a quick stop for cold drinks and to wipe off the dirt we were covered with, we continued onto our final stop, Sinho. The road from Nam Cay to Sinho was a single lane road, made up of switchbacks, climbing steep mountains until it reached the small town at the top. Breathtaking views made our photo-op stops more and more frequent, and somewhat dangerous seeing as we were stopping on a single lane road with no where to go if a car came around the hairpin turns (luckily none did and we got some great photos so totally worth it). As we neared Sinho, we passed hilltribe women in actual hilltribe dress, not for tourists (obviously we were the only ones here) but working in the fields and carrying baskets home. Families waved and smiled as we rode past, genuinely happy to see us. We were warmed by their smiles and excited to spend the night in Sinho. Sinho was definitely not a tourist town, however it was full of the same charm Sapa probably had 10 years ago. Known as “the sleeping princess”, it is nestled high in the mountains near the Chinese border, not quite discovered by tourists yet but porbably soon will be. Black Hmong women sat along the town square sewing as we checked into our nearby hotel (less charades this time as the woman had a sign with prices).
Reveling in the cold mountain temperatures, we spent our afternoon relaxing and exploring the city. Dinner was a nice change from our constant diet of soups and istead was sliced pork, stewed tofu, greens and rice, the owner put her baby in my lap, giggling as she snapped photos (later we looked over and saw she was posting them to facebook). After a few beers and a long photoshoot with the guys sitting next to us, we called it a night before anyone else wanted our photos!
Heading home to Sapa we had loaded up on Ban Cuon for breakfast, riding along the single lane road down the mountains, at times it seemed like we were driving right into the sky with 90 degree turns around the mountain with nothing to see but road and sky- and occasionally a guard rail if we were lucky. Scenic vistas were around every turn, however we were too busy trying not to careen off the narrow road’s edge to appreciate the views as much as they warranted. The sheer cliffs and occasional rock slides blocking parts of the road kept our eyes glued to the road. The last 14 kilometers down the mountain pass was under constuction, adding a whole new level of challenge since when the road is one track of dirt and loose rocks with no guardrail and a very steep fall, the added challenge of getting past the construction trucks and the backhoe reversing into you seems insurmountable. However with lots of adrenaline in our system we made it past the construction and back to Lai Chau. Relieved to have survived the ride down and not to have popped any bike tires we celebrated with some sort of iced yogurt drink filled with jellies. If we were given a million dollars I dont think any of us could figure out how to order it again, we were attempting to order iced tea….but it was a delicious treat and exactly what we needed.
We cruised through rice paddies and small towns until we hit the final mountain pass before Sapa, with Mount Fanispan in front of us we road along the mountain bends like pros with a cool breeze blowing and warm sun with clear skies, we were all sad our adventure was coming to a close. We returned our bikes, quickly escaping before the poor woman noticed the extra 350km added to the odometer. Walking back to our hostel we laughed at all the tourists on motobikes around town, riding in tank tops and shorts- we knew better, long pants, long sleeves, face masks and no bit of skin uncovered, we are practically locals now. Crazy how many tourists rent bikes yet never really leave the immediate area surrounding Sapa. Since leaving on our motobike we went over 56 hours without seeing another tourist and although we were not excited to be back on the tourist trail we were excited to eat something other than soup for dinner!
Sad to be leaving each other and Vietnam, the three of us enjoyed a farewell dinner and boarded one last night bus together. We were abruptly woken by the conductor at 3:30AM, we were pulled off on the side of the highway in front of the airport-so the three of us grabbed our bags and crossed the highway only to find a tall fence blocking our way. The fence seemed to go on for miles in both directions, so we did the most logical thing to do in a foreign country at 3:30am- we found a section of fence that was less tall and threw our bags over and hopped the airport fence. Somehow no one seemed to care we broke into the airport, and we were able to sleep for a few hours in the arrivals lobby before getting on our separate plans and bidding farewell to Melissa.
And so ended our time in Vietnam, with lots of soup, smiles, sore bums, photo-ops, more than a few lost in translation moments and an occasional wrong turn. Before coming to Vietnam we were forewarned the people here are less friendly than other Asian countries, however nothing could be farther from the truth for us. Luckily there are a few more areas of Vietnam we have our eyes on for motobiking so perhaps we may be back!
Excited to leave the heat behind and head up to Sa Pa , we anxiously arrived at our overnight bus pickup an hour early, knowing full well that the last time we took this bus company, they were nearly two hours late – Asia time. When the clock crept closer to 11PM, well after our 9PM allotted pick-up time, we thought perhaps it was time to try contacting someone. I ventured down to the travel agent we booked through, who was miraculously still open, and inquired about the status of our bus. He was SHOCKED we waited this long and gave me quite the lecture… apparently according to him we should never wait longer than a half hour before checking on the status. Again, last time this happened to us, everyone laughed at us for being so concerned over the time, “it’s coming!” they all said patiently.
(no photos because the action-packed chase did not bode well for holding a camera…..)
This time, that was not the case. Our bus had apparently picked up 3 people, but the wrong people at the wrong hotel, and those people’s bus just assumed they were a no-show. With a little help from my travel-agent dad, both buses turned around (mind you they were at least an hour into their trip) and the 3 of us hopped on to the back of 2 motos to go catch the buses. Me with a giant backpack on the back, with Dagny squeezed in the middle of myself and the driver while holding little backpacks, and Melissa on another moto with an excessive amount of backpacks as well…. was quite the sight to see, like a scene straight out of a James Bond movie. Thanks to all the teamwork, the imposters were kicked off our bus and we settled into our “beds” for the evening – easy peasey 😉
Arriving in Sapa as the sun was rising and feeling quite groggy, we were greeted by a woman named Chi in traditional Hmong tribe garb. She was so sweet (and persistent) that we do a trek and homestay through her. After checking with tour companies who wanted triple the price Chi was offering us, and for a less authentic experience, the choice was clear. Later that day, Dagny asked another Hmong woman on the side of the road if she knew Chi, and luckily Chi is a popular lady that not only did this woman know, but was friends with and had her phone number, called her for us, and set up the tour to begin the next day at 9am. Small town wonders.
We met Chi the next morning ready for 3 days of trekking with her adorable self. We were told Mama P would be taking us on the 2nd day and staying at her home, so we would get some variety in our homestays. The first day of trekking was awesome with amazing views – not too difficult, a bit rocky and I fell twice, but that’s not abnormal. We ran into many adorable children along the way, some selling bracelets and some letting us take photos with their pet owls (?) Along the mountains were many many many marijuana fields – it just grows freely here, though they don’t smoke it, they use it to make hemp clothing and other items.
That evening we stayed at Chi’s home, which had a million dollar view, along with about 13 other people. We had bets going as to how many people would be sleeping there…. between Chi and her husband, her daughters/sons and their significant others, and their children – it was a full house! Chi’s husband cooked us a delicious dinner, with the best chili sauce we have had yet! Chi insisted on piling more food on top of what we already had and trying to plumpen us up – we had to stand our ground eventually and say no, while the teeny little lady that she is out-ate us.
We were awakened the next day with pancakes and coffee (and pigs eating baby poop…), before starting our “flat” trek with Mama P. HA. HA. HA. LIES!!! This was the furthest thing from flat, I suppose what Chi meant when she said that was the pathway was flat, not so rocky like the previous day, however we were ascending a mountainside for 2 hours straight. It was brutal at times and reminded me how out of shape I am (I am always slapped in the face with that reminder whenever I think I can go trekking… need to either go more, or stop pretending!) Luckily the view at the top made the pain worth it.
Chi and Mama P, and their entire families, treated us like a part of their own family and we are all so thankful to have had this experience with them. We hope to visit again some day, maybe for longer!!
With our bums still a bit numb, we flew into Hoi An sporting awkward sunburns, readying ourselves for a break from the stress of motobikes, eager to join the tourist trail again. After the death-defying traffic and hectic pace of Saigon, it was a nice change of pace to spend a few days in the sleepy town of Hoi An. We checked into our hostel and immediately braved the scorching temperatures to scope out an iphone repair store, since my phone was DOA from the flood, we were both a bit anxious when Kristy walked out of the bar’s restroom in Saigon the night prior to leaving, calmly stating she dropped her phone down the toilet. After a somewhat frantic search for rice, culminating in Kristy following a woman down a few alleyways into her house and meeting the family, we felt a bit more optimistic about her phone’s chances. We followed the directions our hostel staff provided and found a shirtless vietnamese man in the back of a concrete store filled with electronics in various states of repair, with no english on his end and little vietnamese on our end it took a few minutes but after inspecting the phone he finally smiled, looked at Kristy and said “ooooooh, water” and without any further conversation proceeded to take her phone completely apart and perform miracles. Armed with a hairdryer, ethanol (? we think?) and a screw driver, he managed to get her phone up and running, the only evidence of its risky swim left is the occasional quirk and the battery charge is no longer visible. Life win.
We celebrated our electronic victory with Bia Hoi- or “fresh beer”, homemade beer that is roughly 5000 dong (25 cents) and surprisingly delicious; combined with some peanuts and people watching our afternoon was looking up. That evening we decided to be super cliche and go to one of the hundreds of tailors there and get some custom made clothes…..because when you have 4 outfits its important you look good in at least one of them. We found an adorable tailor (near the iphone saviors shop) and after lots of consultation, our measurements (a few “no dad, thats not how they do pants” moments) were taken and we were told that our new duds would be ready by 5pm the next night. While anxiously awaiting our new threads we headed to the beach and savoured the cool sea breeze and shade, spending an entire day lounging on the sand, swimming in water that was actually chilly and reading. After a long 24 hours we headed back to our seamstress and lo and behold, our clothes not only are exactly what we pictured but fit amazingly, I got off easy leaving with only a new romper, Kristy had a skirt and pants fixed after some home tailoring went wrong in addition to a new skirt and dress, while Melissa custom designed a long dress and got a romper as well. Loving the sleepy vibe, charming colonial houses and lantern lined streets of Hoi An, it was hard to leave so soon but the month long visa was starting to seem way too short and we still have a ton more to see so we left after only 2 nights in Hoi An.
Hue is the former capital of Vietnam and has a sordid history both in the Vietnam war as well as more than a few conquerings previously. We arrived to a cool afternoon breeze, shocked that the walk to our hostel wouldn’t leave us drenched in sweat we realized that northern Vietnam was starting to look more and more promising, and more importantly I would not be the sole member of our trio searching out soup for once! Without sweltering temperatures the other two girls were actually excited for soup, so we sat ourselves on some plastic stools and enjoyed Bun Bo Hue and a vietnamese soap opera across the street from our hostel. The next morning with only one full day in Hue we knew we couldn’t see everything so we decided to make the forbidden city our only tourist stop for the day. This may come to a shock, but once again our poor planning led to us walking for miles through Hue and exploring the forbidden city in the midday heat….like idiots. We walked through the imperial gardens, old buildings and leave it to Kristy to embrace her inner Asia and pose for photos on the throne in traditional dress. Three hours later we left the forbidden city’s gates drenched in sweat and were defeated enough to get into a cyclo (melissa and myself, Kristy opted for the motobike ride back to the hostel). Melissa joined me in a quest to hunt down Banh Ep at a local market, although we were technically successful the banh ep was a bit on the disappointing side of the food spectrum, so we consoled ourselves with some iced yogurt and headed back to meet Kristy for more Bun Bo Hue and of course we needed to find out what was happening on our new favorite soap opera.
Logistically it made the most sense for us to take a tour to the Phong Nha caves, skip the ride back and instead grab a night bus to Hanoi. Tours not being our thing we were a little skeptical but were very excited to explore some more caves! We arrived in Phong Nha town after a four hour bus ride, with a tour guide giving us info via a microphone for the majority of our ride….again not our style but it got us to Phong Nha town. We were dropped off at the Dark Cave and with no more information then they would come back to pick us up in two hours and “no worries” as the answer to all of our questions. We stored our bags and ended up waiting for forty five minutes before we finally headed off to the cave, but since our “tour guide” arranged this and spoke with the caving company we felt confident that we still had plenty of time. We zip lined down a river to the foot of the cave, Kristy’s first time and she handled it like a champ especially since the only direction she received was two vietnamese men were frantically yelling “feet up!” at the end of the line….nothing quite like leaving it to the last minute. We headed into the dark cave, after 20 minutes of squeezing through wet and muddy passages we arrived to a mud pit in the cave center, it was strangely viscous and floating on it was like floating on Jello. More than one handful of mud was thrown and we were all laying ontop of the jellied mud and completely covered by the end of our excursion. Not quite ready to let us leave, our cave guide led us to a giant cavern, shut off all of our headlamps and we swam through the giant cavern in the pitch black….more than a little eerie but totally awesome.
The original plan was to kayak out of the cave to the shore and enjoy some time in the river (there was a water trampoline!!), but our worry-free tour guide was on a speedboat searching for us…turns out we were almost an hour late for our pick up. Frantically yelling at us to “hurry hurry” we washed off what mud we could and loaded into the van, learning that we would also not have enough time to explore Phong Nha cave itself, the supposed highlight of our trip up here which was a bit of a downer. We killed six hours in Phong Nha town itself waiting for our night bus pick up, our ticket and travel agent said it would pick us up at 9:30 in front of Easy Tiger hostel, at 10:30 we could be found drinking pity beers (from a sympathetic bartender) and doing yoga stretches still waiting in front of Easy Tiger, finally the bus rolled in at 11pm and we boarded, more than ready to sleep after our early morning pick up and activity filled day.
We continued our theme of “treat yo-self” in choosing our Halong Bay cruise, super touristy but one of those activities you just have to do and is a natural wonder of the world so must be worth it right? So we went for a more expensive aka fancy three day-two night cruise, we heard a few too many horror stories from the cheap party boats and had no desire to wake up covered with puke from the 19 year old backpacker next to us. So we boarded our fancy boat filled with real adults on vacation, with our giant backpacks and a liter of vodka hidden in a water bottle…. our “touch of class” is indeed just a touch. (and to clarify our idea of fancy is very relative these days….the fresh towels and air conditioning in our rooms is what constitutes “fancy”)
Our first afternoon was very (tourist oriented) activity filled and scheduled. We kayaked to a floating village, which once we approached we all realized was completely empty, instead of sticking around “the village of lies” we decided to enjoy the scenery and kayak through the karsts instead. We later found out that the government kicked out all the villagers for environmental reasons and moved them to land so at least it was once a real village? We enjoyed our complimentary glass of wine with the sunset and were later brought to a beach in the middle of the bay for an evening swim. Luckily for backpackers like us, a woman in a bamboo boat filled with beer, snacks and wine rowed up to our window, with a bit of haggling we bought a bottle of wine and a few beers off of her for a fraction of what they were charging on our boat, but if discovered we would have to pay an outside alcohol fine, so we reverted to our college days and spent the evening ordering fruit juices for our vodka and hiding our empty beer cans.
The second day only about 1/3 of our boat was left as the rest of the boat was a two day-one night tour, but the second day was what we all pictured in our minds when we envisioned Halong Bay. We were moved to a smaller boat for the day and cruised through the less tourist filled Long Ha bay and Cat Ba national park, we lounged on the roofdeck reading and enjoying the view until we stopped at an inlet to kayak through the limestone karsts and swim at one of dozens of small hidden beaches, we spent the remainder of the morning swimming off the boat- even jumping off the roofdeck. After lunch we moved to Cat Ba national park, we kayaked through a cave into an isolated lagoon filled with hundreds of brightly colored jellyfish, only accessible through the cave and surrounded by tree cover karsts. The jellyfish ranged from white to gold to brown to blue and were surreally beautiful, with no tourists around we all felt how magical and perfect our day truly was. I may or may not have compared it to Narnia…. nerd alert. We eventually made our way back to the boat to meet our new tour members. Our final morning in the boat was much like the first day, scheduled to the minute and not really our scene but we were surrounded by such green water and beautiful scenery we went along with an overcrowded tourist-trap cave tour and cooking demonstration, managing to sneak away for a few titanic king of the world photos at the bow before we landed in Halong Bay city and boarded the bus for our four hour journey back to Hanoi.
Although group tours really aren’t our preferred choice we did enjoy hanging out with real adults again, but it did get a bit tiring explaining “yes we quit our jobs” again and again (in the backpacker scene thats the norm not the exception), sneaking wine made us flashback a decade and not in a good way, and the strict schedule was again a reminder that they are good in small amounts but not our standard mode of transport and we are all excited to get back off the tourist trail and see a bit more of the countryside. Halong Bay though truly was a highlight of our travels, the postcard like views were surreal and we all left with memory cards filled with pictures of rocks that we are unable to force ourselves to delete any.
“…I’d have a whole kitchen full” were the words of wisdom spoken by Miss Card as she rode passenger on back of my motorbike while ascending steep curvy mountain passes in the rain at night, trying to avoid buses and 18-wheelers. We lived by this saying for the duration of our 5 7 day motorbike loop through Southern Vietnam, running into many speedbumps along the way and trying not to think of the what-if’s, but rather focus on how to get back to Saigon with everything we came with – 3 girls, 3 bikes, and our sanity.
Our motorbike loop began in Saigon, which as relatively novice riders, was a challenge to say the least. Many of the intersections throughout the city (ok ok, throughout the entire country) don’t have stop signs or traffic signals, it is literally a free for all in the center with the biggest vehicle usually winning. Throw us in the midst on the smallest of them all, little bitty scooters, and you’ve got yourself some terrified ladies. After circling to find a gas station, zooming through tunnels, and experiencing consistent heart palpitations, we finally made it onto the Cat Lai ferry. This was supposed to be the “easy” way out of Ho Chi Minh, HA!
Next we drove on highways for a very long time, with truck horns nearly deafening us at every corner. The view was basically non-existent for the majority of the ride, with the exception of the last couple hours passing through Dragon fruit fields, herds of farm animals and magnificent mountains. Colonel Harry (my moto) ran out of gas at one point, pushing that bad boy was fun in the hot season. Exhausted and sore after 9+ hours of sitting on the motorbikes, we called it a night 60km earlier than planned in a little fishing town called Lagi. After another hour of driving around lost in the town trying to find the hotel (because naturally there would be two with the same name in one small Vietnamese town, right? SAME SAME BUT DIFFERENT) we found the correct accommodations, showered off the day’s frustrations and got some weird jelly-on-ice dessert and, of course….soup.
Day 2 was off to a better start, with a delicious bowl of….. yes, soup…. at a cute little restaurant with the owner in her phenomenal daytime jammie ensemble, and a positive attitue and better plan of attack — instead of driving 160km in one day again, stick to just 60km to Mui Ne, slow and steady wins the race. After a “lunch” stop of smoothies and coffee (so much caffeine intake in this country) Dagny graciously offered to switch motorbikes with me, since the Colonel’s speedometer didn’t work and this way I could lead the pack for a bit. I jumped on the Red Rocket and sped along the beautiful ocean road, stopping for a pit stop in KeGa to admire the lovely lighthouse from afar, before arriving in the lovely beach ocean town of Mui Ne.
Practically sprinting off our bikes, we ran toward the ocean water that awaited us, so hot and sweaty from a day with no respite from the brutal Sun. To our surprise, the “beach” was more of a concrete jungle with a seaweedy staircase leading directly into the rough water, ix-nay on the beautiful sand part. Regardless of how we got into the water (Dagny has some water-walking skills) it was refreshing and exactly what we needed. For dinner, we indulged on burgers and shakes at a place called Phat Burgers (who knew ham on a burger would be so delicious?) then rolled ourselves back to the hostel for an early night’s rest.
Day 3 of our loop sure was one for the books, with so many extreme highs and extreme lows throughout the course of the day. Sledding down the Red sand dunes with an adorable Vietnamese woman showing me different methods was not only the highlight of my day, but of my time thus far in Vietnam. She later became our personal photographer without us even asking, she’s clearly done this before.
High on life despite being drenched in a sunblock-sweat combo and covered in sand, we pulled out of the parking lot to continue on our journey and came the first low of the day – Vietnamese police. Threatening to impound our rented motorbikes, we obliged to a hefty fine of 1 million dong ($50)- although frustrating and not fair, since we were obeying the speed limits and got pulled over simply because we were tourists, this seemed like the better alternative as opposed to having to pay to get our bikes back.
We soon forgot about this hiccup as we continued along the gorgeous coastal road and up through beautiful mountains with surreal views every which way we turned. We stopped for some….SOUP! on the side of the road to refuel, again enjoying the lush scenery all around us. Once we got past all the mountain switchbacks, we had only 50-60km left to Dalat- about an hour…supposedly.
If only it weren’t for the light rain. NOT! We got stuck in a flash flood, which after a few minutes of cupping the rain puddles out of our eyes while driving, we decided it would be smart to pull over and wait out the storm- like all the locals were already smart enough to be doing. Melissa and I successfully drove through the newly formed pond into a warehouse filled with cilantro- dreams do come true! Dagny did not have such luck with the Colonel, and ended up having to push the moto through water higher than her waist. This flooded the engine, surprise! The warehouse owners pointed us in the direction of a Honda mechanic down the street (the Honda part being irrelevant, for some reason just the signs they use here to identify a mechanic) to take a look at the bike. Dagny tried to explain the issue to him with spirit fingers, which made him chuckle. A half hour later, after discovering Dagny’s phone wouldn’t turn on (bad day for her), the mechanic rolled the bike towards us shaking his head. Near tears, we somehow managed to use a calendar to get across the message that we were leaving the bike with him to be fixed, and would be back on Monday.
With a passenger in tow (spewing such wise words as the title to this blog) we made our way up through the twisty and dark mountains to Dalat, with Melissa as our fearless leader – honking around every curve to let the buses and trucks know we were there… small but powerful we were. After what seemed like an eternity with no feeling in my fingers, we reached adorable (and chilly) Dalat. Our frigid body temps prompted us to spring for the fancy room with a hot tub and a sauna, as Dagny would say…. treat yo’self.
Dalat proved to be pure magic- the temps were a welcome retreat from the blazing Asian hot season sun we have had for the last 4 months – drinking hot chocolates was a nightly activity! Dagny took an easy-rider ride with a man named Joseph to pick up the Colonel, who was as new as he’d ever be and in working condition after only $25 – phew!! The next day we went canyoning, which I was absolutely terrified of going into…almost wasn’t going to go terrified… and much like the motorbiking experience where I almost chickened out then loved it ever-so much, I now want to go canyoning whenever I have the opportunity. It was SO Much fun, a crazy adrenaline rush — I SCALED DOWN A WATERFALL, JKAGSHGALGAUGAKG WHAT!??? Yes, this is real life!! The best was that after this day of strenuous activity, we had our nice relaxing jacuzzi with a bottle of red- again, that “touch of class.”
Upon leaving Dalat, we made the journey back to Saigon in a much more organized fashion – waking up between 4:30-5am to get a solid amount of driving in before the sun was at its hottest, whilst being completely covered from head to toe – when looking in my rearview, it was hard to tell if it was Dagny, Melissa, or a local Vietnamese person. Success!
We made it back to Ho Chi Minh safely without any more crazy stories, just 812 km later with some sore butts and not wanting to look at motorbiks for a little while (ok, so we are already planning our loop in the North…but we’ve got some time) and the next day, we caught a flight up to Ha Noi.
Food lovers paradise or drowning in soup? Saigon: A Tale of Two Cities
Since we conceived of this somewhat crazy idea of quitting our jobs to eat noodles, save elephants and occasionally see a few places, the city we were most excited about eating our way through was Ho Chi Minh aka Saigon. Being the neurotic food-obsessed individual I am, I may have mapped out the recommended food stalls all over district 1 and starred them on google maps…. But, needless to say we were all super excited to step off our 8 hour bus ride from Phnom Penh into the insanity that is Saigon; braving the hoards of motobikes weaving around us, we crossed the street and hunted down our hostel to drop off our bags before ferreting out our first bowl of soup.
Ahhhh…. the first dish of any country is filled with such expectations, luckily Vietnam did not disappoint. We headed to a stall selling Canh Chua, a sweet and sour soup filled with pineapple, herbs, fish and tomatoes; it’s broth was super aromatic and delicately flavored, each spoonful containing a completely different flavor profile to enjoy. Although a huge hit with Melissa and I, Kristy was not a fan and instead opted wait for Banh Mi after the first few disappointing bites.
After befriending the local university students loitering in the park hoping to practice their english, we got a few tips on where to get the best Banh Mi and Phu in the area. Kristy had her first Banh Mi from a woman who has had the same Banh Mi stall for forty years, her daughter runs it now, but she can still be seen sitting nearby assisting and supervising. The salty, meaty, spicy and herb filled sandwich was the perfect antidote for Kristy’s less than exciting initiation into the world of Saigon soups.
We awoke to our first full day in Saigon with a simple game plan: eat at as many different places as possible and fit in some cultural sites in between stops to give ourselves at least a little time to digest. We started our day the best way possible, by risking our lives riding three-to-a-motobike through Saigon’s rush hour traffic to find the famous Banh Xeo 46 that Anthony Bourdain enjoyed and of course see the Barbie church aka Tan Dinh church. After a few wrong turns we found the correct alleyway and sat down to a large Ban Xeo aka heaven. Ban Xeo is a large, sizzling, fried rice cake filled with shrimp, bean sprouts and herbs that we wrap up in mustard leaves and even more delicious thai basil and dip into a sweet fish sauce.
After a prolonged photoshoot in front of the pink church and more than one attempt to find a way inside its Mattel-like majesty, we headed off through the fabric district and a local market to eat banh beo and cuon diep. Cuon diep is basically a really healthy fresh roll; it is a mustard leaf wrapped around tofu, mushrooms and noodles that we dip in a salty-sweet peanut sauce; the mustard leaves lend a spicy, almost horseradish like flavor to them. Because we were being so healthy with our glorified lettuce wraps we also sprung for banh beo (rice flour pancakes). These delightful treats are definitely on the gelatinous end of the spectrum, but the crispy pork rinds and shrimp powder topping them keep the texture tolerable as you pour fish sauce over them and struggle to keep them from slipping off your chopsticks on the journey to your mouth. Not surprisingly there also happens to be a donut bakery down the street from the Barbie church filled with brightly colored donuts in all sorts of fun flavors and designs….angry birds themed donut anyone?
Walking several kilometers in an attempt to feel less portly after our three course breakfast we headed to the War Remants museum for a solemn few hours to reflect on our country’s past wrong doings and the lasting effects of agent orange still visible throughout the country. Leaving with feelings of guilt, sadness and trying to recover from so many photos of incredibly disturbing images we decided soup was in order. We went to the nearby Bun Bo Hue Dong Ba for a bowl of Bun Bo Hue, a delicious and spicy lemongrass and chilli based soup that originates in the old capital of Hue. It was by far our favorite soup of Saigon, and filled with a ton of meat, had a warm and mildly spicy flavor, although our poor pronounciation and the waitstaff’s complete lack of any English made us momentarily doubt if bun bo hue was going to be in our future. Unfortunately, because it was so amazingly delicious we finished two bowls before any photographic evidence of our meal could be taken…. fat kids.
Pho: this ubiquitous street stall soup is eaten all day everyday, but somehow it took two whole days for us to obtain our first bowls, needless to say a complete travesty it took so long. We went to Pho Ouyns (“fa-owens”) and ordered both chicken and beef varieties (ga and bo respectively). It was a nutritious and delicious way to start our days, overall the consensus being that although a delightful chicken soup, the phu-bo was amazing. The beef brisket was super flavorful and the broth was light enough for breakfast but not lacking on flavor…..little did we know that in the coming week we would be eating this soup at least twice a day on the road and become a running joke.
We each spent the day exploring the myriad of winding alleyways and markets that Saigon had to offer, Kirsty and I each found different cafes to hole up in for the day, to enjoy the strong and delicious Vietnamese coffee and air conditioning. The Morning Cafe was down an unmarked alleyway, up a set of dark and somewhat dingy stairs above a hair salon, once I opened the wooden doors an adorable and homey little coffee shop awaited me. Kristy walked through the financial district and found Mockingbird Cafe that was located in a delapidated looking apartment building, but the inside was completely renovated with a funky vibe and refreshing raspberry yogurt smoothies. Because we ended up becoming BFFs with students from the univerisity they hooked us up with the local coffee and smoothie stand, iced coffee (Ca-phe-sua-da) and fruit smoothies being only 15,000 dong aka 75 cents, with prices this low and nothing to lose, melissa even gave into our peer pressure and tried an avocado shake and was pleasantly surprised by the sweet creamy and refreshing flavor!
Our final evening in Saigon we classed it up and had an evening at the opera house….you know that “touch of class” we always tell ourselves we have (although when sweating profusely and lugging giant backpacks around it doesn’t really feel that way). We started off our big evening stalking brides taking photos at the Notre Dame Cathedral and post office (sounds weird but the post office is gorgeous), Kristy creeped out more than a few brides when she began not-too-subtley taking photos right behind their official cameraman. With many assurances we would return again and she can find more weddings to crash we headed off to an upscale (ish) dinner. We split Banh Khot, a rice pancake similiar to banh xeo but a little lighter and less greasy, this too is wrapped in mustard leaves, herbs and dipped in the-oh-so heavenly sweet fish sauce, spring rolls and a beef-lemongrass noodle salad. All of which were delicious, obviously after reading the long dessert list we sprang for two desserts- a grilled banana and coconut milk sticky rice and sticking with the theme, a steamed banana cake with coconut cream. We waddled down the street to watch the AO show, a musical and acrobatic show depicting village life as well as more modern city life in Vietnam. Like every show we have seen here, it was magical and we left thinking our budget bustingtwenty-five dollar tickets were money well spent. We kidnapped the frenchman sitting next to us during the show and again walked down a tiny dark alleyway to find a rooftop hookah bar overlooking the Notre Dame cathedral, spending our last evening in Saigon sipping cocktails in the cool rooftop breeze trying to imagine a way we could move to Saigon without gaining forty pounds.
Knowing we would return to this delicious soup filled city (ok maybe the soup was not what wooed Kristy in this city, and instead made her realize she prefers her noodles sans broth-I vote it was instead the coffee shops on her end) is the only way we could have torn ourselves away to disappear into the countryside for a motobike adventure, so after one last vietnamese coffee from our “regular” place we headed off on our moto-bikes sure that we will come back for at least another day or two before heading up north….
Little did we know our little 5 day trip would turn into a week long adventure involving countless bowls of soup, a few mountains, awkward sunburns and more than a few snags along the way, but thats a story for another day!
After an emotionally charged visit to Phnom Penh we were looking forward to settling down in the sleepy city of Battambang (see title for pronounciation as we learned after many confused looks when we said we were going to bat-tam-bang) for a week of volunteering with KNGO, teaching english in a small village just outside the city. Phnom Penh was a throwback to Yangon and Bangkok; full of tuk-tuk drivers vying for business, traffic that never seemed to stop, loud horns and dog fights punctuating the air, all of which never let us forget we were in a capital city (ahhh Vientiane, you lulled us into complacency with your quiet ways).
From everything we had read and heard, Battambang was the antithesis of Phnom Penh. Although it is the second largest city in Cambodia, it lacks the traffic of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, has that small town feel and has little nightlife to speak of. We arrived after another death-defying yet scenic bus ride to find exactly that, a city that felt like a funky and cool small town; with a tightly knit community of expats, Battambang is filled with cool (and socially conscious) cafes, has an art district (one small street but that counts right?) and tons of good restaurants without the high price fo Phnom Penh.
KNGO is a non-profit NGO that is based in Bospor village 7 km outside of Battambang. Students in Cambodia attend school in shifts, either 3 hours in the morning or 3 hours in the afternoon, usually studying Khmer, math and sometimes english. KNGO provides adjunct english classes in afternoons for students, allowing them to learn enough english to go on to either university or obtain a higher paid job in a city. It also provides morning classes of math and english for younger students, as well as computer and english classes in the evenings for older students. Some volunteers come for months at a time, others a day, we decided on a week based on upcoming school holidays and our soon to expire visas. The three of us had wildly differing experiences with our classes but overall the experience was a positive one.
We were each paired with a Khmer teacher who led the class and used us in whatever fashion they deemed helpful. I was paired with an absolutely amazing teacher, Pai who was passionate about teaching and not afraid to incorporate games into each class to keep english exciting and fun for his students. By the end of the first class I was leading exercises, correcting assignments, assisting students one-on-one and leading a very competitive Bingo game, at every opportunity I was practicing pronouciation with students and overall had an amazing week with my classes. However, I definitely lucked out as my students were levels 2,3 and 6; while Kristy had two beginner level classes and a level 2 class, and Melissa’s classes were somewhere in the middle. Kristy’s teacher didn’t quite utilize her to the full extent possible and his level of control over the class was not quite there, but she still managed to make the best of it and befriend several older girls (and learn all about their secret boyfriends shhhh…). Again, Melissa’s experience was somewhat between Kristy’s and mine, as the week progressed she led the class in more exercises and had a more active role. The most challenging part of teaching was the materials we had to work with, as the workbooks we use are made for western students and trying to explain snowboarding, igloos and geocaching to ten year old Cambodian children is not only difficult and a bit silly, it also makes it difficult for them to identify with the material. “I want spaghetti, I don’t want cereal”, yet at home they would never eat spaghetti or cereal, if only books focused on more culturally relevent material were available to them, however that is the nature of most school materials available.
A homestay in the village was available to us, but we made the decision to stay in Battambang and ride bicycles to school since we were only at school from 1:30 to 5pm, leaving us the morning to explore the city. Monday morning we spent at the school sitting in on classes to better prepare ourselves for our upcoming week and managed to hunt down bicycles of questionable quality. The ride into Bospor village and back each day quickly became the day’s highlight, children and adults alike would wave furiously yelling “hello” with bright smiles and warm greetings of “sou-sdey” as we past. Occasionally we would see a few of our students, but for the most part it was just strangers excited to see us making the hot and dusty ride so enjoyable. Except for Kristy- she developed quite the feud with her bike and eventually (after three flat tires and multiple repairs) she gave up and ended up riding on the back of a motorbike to get to school and returned her bike a day early.
Wednesday morning we took a Khmer cooking class at Nary’s Kitchen downtown, going to the market to buy our ingredients and cooking all morning to make ourselves a delicious lunch before leaving for class. We made fish amok (a delicious dish of fish steamed in a banana leaf with coconut milk and a curry-like paste), beef lok-lak (sauteed beef with a ton of herbs and sauces, topped with a over-easy egg and pepper sauce), spring rolls and a banana-coconut milk tapioca for dessert. So basically, between our Thai cooking class and this one we are going to kick ass in the kitchen when we get home (do not quote us on this, which is clearly a lie). The rest of the mornings were spent checking out different cafes, hunting down noodles for breakfast in the morning markets and trying to resist all the cool and artsy souvenirs that our backpacks can’t hold.
Evenings in Battambang were mostly quiet affairs, we stayed at Here Be Dragons a cool hostel with a heavy Game of Thrones influence (including screenings each monday night of the new season), that was just across the river from a cheap night market full of food stalls and a charismatic young boy Visot that charmed us enough to convince us to return again riding our bikes through the rain. Usually each night, after a delicious and affordable noodle based dinner of course, we would return to the hostel to enjoy a couple of beers with our fellow travelers and just chill out. Wednesday night brought Trivia Night at the hostel, obviously with our incredible and vast knowledge base Kristy, Melissa, a random Belgium man and myself came in last place…..and suffered the consequences with the last place “prize”….. an awful chili-vodka shot from the deepest pits of Hell. Good news is we now know (and won’t ever forget) the Roman emperor who made his horse a consul (Caligula for you nerds who care). Thursday was our final day of classes (friday was Royal Ploughing Ceremony day?) so we celebrated with a trip to the renowned Battambang circus, not to fear this isn’t the Barnum and Bailey animal torturing type of circus, but an artistic and acrobatic display that benefits vulnerable youths and teaches them music, acting and acrobatics. So basically it was magical. They did acrobatics in the air hung from silk ropes, cheerleading on steroids throws, lots of flips and at one point they jumped rope with fire. FIRE.
Because of the unexpected school holiday we decided to spend Friday doing the touristy stuff that we didn’t have the time to do all week. Melissa and I braved the heat and rode our rickety single-speed bicycles down the highway to a temple 10 miles outside of town, not a big deal normally but these were the bikes from hell. It took us an hour and a half each way and being the intelligent people we are, we did this during the hottest part of the day. The temple was up a steep limestone mountain (hill really but it was hot out so it felt like a moutain), we climbed up a scenic path to the top, the view was incredible and we could see across the flat rice-paddy filled countryside for miles. The temple was small but filled with monkeys (the whistles may have been used a few times….) and had the benefit of such great vistas around it. After decending a few hundred steps down the side of the limestone cliffs we enjoyed a cool water with the helpful guys protecting our bicycles from being stolen before braving the HELLISH hot ride back to Battambang. Our sunburns and incredible dehydration when we returned to the hostel didn’t go far in convincing Kristy she missed out on much, since she spent the day in an incredible cafe with amazing apple cinnamon pancakes and a boutique attached to it. Together again, we rode the bamboo train, which today it is a bit of a tourist trap but post Khmer-Rouge when roads into Battambang were destroyed the bamboo train was used to bring goods and people into the city and surrounding countryside. We enjoyed a surprisingly fast and exciting ride into a village, with a ton of rural scenery along the way and a few stops to take apart our cart for carts coming the opposite way.
Although some of our teaching experiences weren’t exactly what we were hoping for, our week in Battambang was a nice reminder that a break from constantly moving from place to place is needed sometimes; as well as how much we enjoy becoming part of a local community, becoming a “regular” at a nearby cafe, running into people around town that we recognize and know and having a sense of home (even if it is temporary). Battambang provided us with the perfect way to end our time in this amazing country full of such warm people and we look forward to potentially coming back one day and spending more time teaching at the school, thus having the opportunity to become more involved in the teaching process.
But for now the plethora of noodle soups in Vietnam are calling our names…….
Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia and once known as the “Pearl of Asia,” brought us feelings of sadness and sorrow amidst the exotic backdrop of honking tuk-tuks, hawking street vendors and traffic free-for-alls. Home of the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, our weekend visit to the capital was a harrowing experience that will leave a lasting impression for years to come.
Forty years ago, the Khmer Rouge rose to power in Cambodia and turned the country into a genocidal nightmare come true. Led by a man named Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge armies forced millions of people from their homes – major cities were specifically targeted where higher number of “intellectuals” were thought to have lived (doctors, teachers, lawyers, anyone with glasses). The goal behind all of this was to create a purified group of people that hadn’t been tainted by Western ways.
People were forced to give up their belongings, separated from their families and made to work in labor camps in the extreme heat with minimum food, sometimes not even a handful of rice for an entire day’s ration. Sickness was no excuse for not performing manual labor, and if the soliders were unhappy with anything, they would beat and torture people, or murder them.
These actions would sometimes be performed in front of others to set the precedent for certain behaviors, other times the victims would be taken away to killing fields. We visited one of these killing fields while in Phnom Penh, Choeung Ek, which is the most well-known of over 300 killing fields in Cambodia. Seeing actual human skulls and stepping over bones on the walkways made this all so real, we saw sights where hundreds of bodies were dumped, trees that babies were beaten against, and many more horrific things – I’ll let the pictures below do the talking.
We also visited the Tuol Sleng Museum, or Security 21 Prison (S-21). Occupying what was once a high school, this was the main site for torture and interrogation, found unsuspectingly on the corner of a busy side street in Phnom Penh. Walking through this prison where over 20,000 people we executed was one of the most haunting experiences of my life. The beds and shackles, sometimes even the weapons, were still in some of the rooms that so many innocent people took their last breath in. We could see the stains on the ground below the beds from the puddles of blood, along with photos on the wall of when the victims were found. There were photos of the thousands of faces of those who entered S-21 on the walls, with only 2 still alive today. Again, I will let the photos speak here.
By the time the Khmer Rouge fell in 1979, this horrific regime had ruled Cambodia for four brutal years, and in that time frame it is estimated that between 2 and 4 million people parished – out of a total population prior to Khmer Rouge of only 8 million. Think about that for a minute. 1 out of every 4 or every 2 people, killed, for no reason other than one tyrant leader’s beliefs.
Growing up in America, we all learn in great detail about Hitler and his impact, yet for some reason Pol Pot’s recent destruction is not something that is taught. I am guilty of not knowing really anything about the Khmer Rouge until coming to the area, and now that I do, I simply cannot get it out of my head. I am fascinated that just forty years ago, FORTY years ago, this was able to happen.
I look at every single person living in Cambodia over the age of 40, and my heart breaks as I try to imagine what their life must have been like during this time frame. My own parents are in their late 40’s, meaning they would have been just young children sent to child labor camps had they been born in Cambodia. The people of this country have been through so much, yet are some of the most amazing and kindest people we have encountered thus far on our journey. Cambodia, and every single person we have met along the way, will forever be in our hearts and our fondest memories.
If you want to learn more about the Khmer Rouge from a survivor’s point of view, I highly recommend reading “First They Killed My Father” by Loung Ung. The author recounts her family’s daily struggles during the Khmer Rouge time. Emotional and real, I could not put this book down. I also read another survivor story called “When Broken Glass Floats” by Chanrithy Him, and would recommend that if you want to continue to learn more about life during that time. There are many other books as well, which I am sure are equally as amazing, and of course google!