Saturday, June 29, 2013

Hoi An, Vietnam

My friend Douglas made it to Vietnam! He goes by the nickname YD - and since I go by Tiger, I can't judge the strangeness of anyone else's nickname.  He flew into Hanoi and took a 16 hour train to Da Nang, where we met up and took a taxi for $15 south to Hoi An and stopped by the Marble Mountains.

The Marble Mountains are 5 large upcroppings of limestone, riddled with caves and religious significance.  I didn't know what to expect, and the reality blew my mind! Around every corner was a small cave with carved buddhas that were once part of the rock itself, and many offerings and bats.  What a beautiful place :)
YD walking through one of the cave entrances

Offerings carved from the stone

Massive buddha in the background, also carved from the cave
 The next day in Hoi An, we visited the My Son Temple complex ~1 hour outside the city. It was built from 700-1200 AD, and was hidden from the 1600s-1900s when the French "rediscovered" the temple and began excavating. Of course, excavating really means that they took all the best artifacts for themselves and removed many statue heads and large ornaments to bring back to France, where some are in the Lourve.

And then, in the 1970s, American B52 bombers absolutely destroyed most of the structures because the Viet Cong was hiding among the temples, and we wanted to destroy their base. It's really sad now to see the result, and our guide was very clear to point out how Americans were disrespectful of the sanctity of the site and ruined it. In all other ways, our guide was AMAZING! He was hilarious and sounded like a dubbed kung fu movie star.

One of the ruins

One of the most complete temples still standing

Sanskrit writing - BEAUTIFUL!

This part really does resemble Angkor Wat

A male symbol - as our guide put it, "Same same but BIGGER!" Laughter ensued

Bomb casings recovered

Bomb crater still very much in evidence

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Vietnam & Random Acts of Kindness :)

I made it to Vietnam! I took the 22 hour bus from Vientiane, Laos, to Da Nang, Vietnam, and survived it with a surprising amount of sleep and general well-being. The bus left Vientiane at 6:30 pm sharp and made stops every 2 hours until 12:30am, when we had a long sleep until we arrived at the border at 4:45am.  When the immigration office opened at 6am, it was flooded with lots of Vietnamese and Laos workers and a very small handful of tourists. I was on the bus with a South Korean guy, and we managed to navigate stamping out of Laos, walking the 1km across the border, and getting our Vietnam stamps. 
Sleeper cars, made for teeny people (comfy for me!)
Many buses waiting at 5:30am for immigration

We finished border business at 8am and drove straight until 11:30, when we had a short lunch break (see photos) and some locals convinced me to try squid. IT WAS GOOD! As long as I don't think too hard about all those months I spent cutting open, defrosting, re-freezing, and generally abusing poor little squids, I can eat them just fine! It only took me 1.5+ years to get over it. I don't know how to explain to people here that it's not about finding squid gross in general - it's remembering the smells and textures of months-old samples. I swear I'm made of tougher stuff...
ok, it was delicious
and the fish were good too!
When I arrived in Da Nang, I found out that my hotel has a fabulous view of the beach and I'm on the 5th floor facing the sea. WOO! I wasn't planning on a hotel but there don't seem to be any hostels in Da Nang, so I checked my new favorite site and found the Blue Whale Hotel. It has very reasonable, clean, and comfortable rooms (see photos) and a fantastic spot on the beach. Great find on agoda!

pretty pretty!

view of the city

I'll be here for a day waiting for my travel buddy, YD (a nickname for my friend Douglas), to arrive from California. We'll be traveling in Vietnam for 2 weeks, starting in the middle in Da Nang and Hoi An and working our way north to Hanoi and Sapa.  Should be delightful! After 2 weeks here, we'll fly back to Thailand and travel around my old digs, as well as seeing some of the north that I didn't view on my first trip there. YAY! The world is a beautiful place...

... which was made even more clear to me today at dinner. I left the hotel and started walking down the restaurants that lined the beach, only to realize that I was:
  1. The only tourist in sight
  2. Unable to speak or read anything in Vietnamese
  3. Only able to order pho, which was not on the menu
  4. REALLY HUNGRY after not eating much on the 22 hour bus extravaganza
I walked around and peered into restaurant after restaurant filled with tables of unfamiliar food. I finally settled at a popular-looking one by my hotel, and sat down, staring confusedly at my menu. I was going to order at random when a woman next to me made her husband come over and help me figure out, in broken english, how to order something with chicken. That seemed safe.  And luckily, "beer" is the same in Vietnam!
As my dish was just arriving, his daughter arrived and helped me translate the menu, finish my enormous stove pot full of chicken stew, and tell me a bit about Danang. IT WAS AWESOME! I learned that I had almost ordered frog and that my second choice had been octopus (neither of which is a particular favorite). Now I can say "thank you" and order fried rice, as well as roughly translate the main meats in Vietnamese. And to top it off, her parents treated us to dinner even though I insisted on the bill! And really Mom and Dad, I did insist but then they insisted in Vietnamese which was more effective with the wait staff. They were so helpful, and so friendly and so... perfect for making me feel comfortable when I wasn't sure if I would be able to eat something I remotely wanted. That's yet another wonderful experience that I will pay forward when I can.

words that I'm still in the process of translating

NOM NOM food and a beer :)

What a wonderful end to over 24 hours of adventures!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Kuangxi Waterfall, Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang, the largest city in northern Laos, is situated on the banks of Mekong River and the Nam Kanh (smaller, equally brown river). It is home to hundreds of monks and many quaint riverside eateries. I had some incredible Laab Pork (spicy Lao/Thai salad and meat) - I put in one red chili pepper and was crying. My upper lip burned from where I breathed out the spice from my nose. I kid you not - my cheekbones even hurt. IT WAS AMAZING! Obviously I went back again for the Laab Beef as well. I can't help it - I love the spice :)

Every morning, the monks walk around the town collecting alms from the locals.  We didn't see the monk procession because apparently it's become quite touristy and somewhat cheapens the experience for locals, but I'm sure it would have been very impressive. I feel a bit strange about that type of tourism, where you take photos of people and they live in a fishbowl. I didn't enjoy getting photos taken of me in India and I can't imagine the locals love it here, so I've been shying away from some the village tours that allow you to "interact with a local village" and get lots of photos. I don't mind when I'm actually buying a service, like getting my tires repaired, but I wasn't comfortable intruding on the monk procession.

We did go to the Kuangxi Waterfall, which is stunning! I've never seen anything like it - there are layers upon layers of limestone pools all cascading into each other, and the water temperature is perfect for swimming. The water was so clear and blue, and there were even some rope swings and jumping points for the more adventurous (I jumped directly from the rocks but didn't trust the ropes).

As part of the entrance fee for the waterfall ($3/person), there was a bear rescue facility and lots of bears and conservation information. They are so cute! They seemed pretty happy and had very large enclosures. The Asian Black Bear (I think that's what this is?) is threatened by habitat loss, so it's great to see them living in such a beautiful area and supported by tourism.


The waterfall almost looked like it was designed by Disney or some fantastic jungle waterpark expert. The water was so gorgeous! The big falls in the last photo are about 200 feet tall, while the other smaller falls are 3-5 feet. There were some 12-15 feet falls as well for jumping. There were many tourists and locals, and lots of people brought in food and beers from the restaurant outside the entrance and set up picnics. Delightful!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Vang Vieng, Laos

Vang Vieng, Laos.

Let me preface this post by saying that Vang Vieng is GORGEOUS. It's surrounded by massive limestone cliffs, beautiful streams and rivers, and rice paddies as far as the eye can see. There are caves, rock climbing, waterfalls, and, of course, river tubing.  Most of the restaurants in town serve exactly the same thing at exactly the same price, and all the restaurants play either 1) Friends 2) Family Guy or 3) Southpark from 9am until 11pm or midnight.  It's a place that caters to lazy Western tourists, and despite that fact, I actually had a great time!  The natural beauty was amazing and since we were forewarned that it tends to be a party scene, we knew what to expect and what to avoid.
For those who didn't know, Vang Vieng, Laos, gained worldwide notoriety in 2006-2007 when "tubing" became all the rage. Tourists flocked from around SE Asia to flop into inner tubes and float between river-side bars, slides, swings, and parties. General debauchery abounded... until the number of deaths from drunken accidents became too high (around 40?) and the Laos government shut down the major parties, slides, and swings.  Now there's "no" hard alcohol and a much calmer atmosphere. No deaths in the last year, fewer people, and more oversight of people between the riverside stops. It felt kind of like floating down the Truckee River during 4th of July, but without waterguns and inner tubes full of beer. I guess in that sense, it was actually much more civilized... heh...

Plus, as we discovered, there is SO MUCH ELSE to do! We went tubing one day, but the rest of our time was spent biking around the countryside and getting lost down small dirt paths, having to get flat tires repaired with the help of 2 year old mechanics (so impressed!), and having to mime where we wanted to go.  It was a beautiful spot and a lot of fun!

Sidenote - the new camera is working great! Hope you're enjoying the photos, Mom and Dad :)

SABAIDEE!!! (Means HI!!!!)

On the way to the Kang Nyui Waterfall


Little waterfall by the side

On the way to Blue Lagoon

This 2 year old knew how to fix a tire. He gave his dad all the correct tools! Awesome

Cows everywhere

Gorgeous mountains around the valley

Rice paddies

Crazy butterfly-moth-thing

Lawn mower engine + cart


Jumping into the lagoon!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Travels in Laos

After traveling through Indonesia with my parents, I regrouped in Thailand for a few days before taking a bus north to Laos. I've wanted to go to Laos for a few years, ever since someone told me I looked like I was from Laos. At the time, I thought "Either that is an incredibly random guess, since I've never even met someone from Laos to compare my looks to, OR they are really well traveled and I look like I'm from Laos!"

Turns out, it was an incredibly random guess. I don't look Laotian. BUT it's a beautiful country full of lovely people, and they have bread. REAL BREAD! Proper, crusty, delicious, French breads. I can't comment on the other impacts of French colonialism here, but I do like French bread and the French cafes all over town have kept me well carb-ed.

I had to stop by the Vietnam embassy to get a visa, which processed in about 7 hours for an exorbitant amount of money ($70?? The visa on arrival, available only at airports, is $20!), and biked around town with Uly. He's loving Laos as well, and may end up staying here after I head to Vietnam.  Go figure... there's no ocean, but the Mekong River is pretty big...

Observations thus far:
1. They drive on the right side of the street! Literally! It's actually disorienting to drive on the same side of the road as at home, since I've been on the left-hand side for so long.

2. Beerlao is delicious. Best beer (thus far) in SE Asia.

3. Parents, I don't know if I'll need help with bail in Laos if this is any indication:

Oops, I barely made it over the border before I was caught. 

National Culture Hall

Delicious hot latte... $2 and SO GOOD!

Mekong River. I guess it's dry season.

Hard to see in the photo, but there were fishermen waist-deep in the river

The traffic is so orderly! Look, everyone's going the same direction.

World Peace Gong, OH MY GOSH!

The fountain started as we were walking around and made this MUCH prettier