Adventures in Asia 2008

my travels through India, Nepal, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan.

Archive for the ‘Vietnam’ Category

Firmly on the Tourist Trail

Posted by maudholma on 22 May 2008

By the time we arrived in Hanoi, comparing Southeast Asia itineraries with other travelers was making me feel like a broken record. There are only so many times you can talk about which countries you’ve already been to and where you’re going next before you start to have a speech memorized. “The food in Thailand was incredible. Laos was beautiful. Cambodia was hot.” And Vietnam is touristy. We’ve bumped into the same Argentinian couple in most of the cities we’ve visited here and as amusing as it is, it’s made me feel a bit like a cow being herded from the south of the country up to the north with everyone else currently traveling in Vietnam. That is, until we spent the past 3 days in Halong Bay and the term “touristic” took on a whole new meaning…

Most people visit the thousands of islands and limestone cliffs that make up Halong Bay on organized tours from Hanoi. We arrived at the port along with a few dozen other minibuses dropping people off and picking others up. It got a little better when we got onto our boat with the 12 other people in our group; at least we no longer looked like war evacuees standing around with our backpacks, waiting in one place, then another, then a third etc. It was difficult to appreciate the stunning scenery at times when everything we did was designed to remind us that we were tourists and that what we were experiencing was nothing close to genuine or authentic. We visited a cave which would’ve been beautiful but for the fact that the rock formations were highlighted by neon lights and the camera flashes of the 50 other people visiting the cave at the same time as us, walking in an ordered line along the paved path from one end of the cave to the other. We stopped at a small floating village to go kayaking and were immediately accosted by women trying to sell us Oreos, Pringles, Coke, beer, and cigarettes. We were herded from bus to boat to pier to bus to hotel like cattle at a livestock market a few times each day.

Considering how touristic the tour was, it’s surprising how disorganized the whole experience actually was. We rarely knew what we were going to do each day, which was probably for the best since most people who were given itineraries were disappointed that reality was nothing like what they had been promised. Each time we moved from bus to boat or vice versa the people in our group changed, the guides apparently exchanging people at random. This was especially unfair since people who had paid $40 and those shelling out $80 for a superior or VIP trip had exactly the same standard of accommodation and transportation. And since no one told us what we needed to wear, there were people doing the trek to the top of a mountain in Cat Ba National Park in flip flops. I wore sneakers and still felt like I was tempting fate when I was slipping around on the muddy paths or clinging onto jagged rocks, branches, and anything else that I could get my hands on while trying not to sprain my ankle or break my neck the last 100 m up to the top. There were, of course, no railings or anything which would have broken a fall…

If it hadn’t been for the breathtaking nature of Halong Bay, which was the overwhelming highlight of the past 3 days and made the whole experience worth it, I would be leaving Southeast Asia disappointed and with a bitter taste in my mouth. Instead, I’m glad for the past 2 months or so here but also giddy with excitement about getting on a plane tonight and flying to Manila. Bring on deserted beaches and crystal clear waters – I’m badly in need of some R&R!

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Popping Pills and Sipping Snake Wine

Posted by maudholma on 10 May 2008

I’ve spent the past 3 days lying in bed, feeling a combination of the following symptoms: nausea, headache, runny nose, throatache, shivers, sweating, and general “all over” pain. As a result of the 4 different kinds of multicolored pills I’m currently taking, I now feel as if I’ve been run over by a car rather than a three ton truck. In between battling what I though was my impending death and the cockroaches in our bathroom, I dragged myself around Hoi An, getting fitted for clothes at some of the many tailor shops that the town is famed for. I can so far think of 2 possible causes of my illness.

Even though we’re generally too poor (or stingy?) to afford A/C rooms, a lot of the buses we’ve been taking have it, even when they don’t have enough suspension to deal with the uneven roads and the entire trip is spent gripping the armrests and trying to avoid hitting the ceiling. From hot and sweaty outside to cool and dry indoors, it’s no wonder the body finds this diffcult to deal with.

Or it might be the lunch we had the day before we left Da Lat. We took a motorbike trip around the countryside with 2 guides, one of whom took us to a restaurant serving cay to. That’s young dog. It came prepared in 2 ways, boiled and barbecued, was accompanied by grilled snake and washed down with snake wine. Our other guide didn’t join us because he believed he would become very ill if he ate dog.

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Xin Chao from Vietnam!

Posted by maudholma on 3 May 2008

A list of the best and worst of Vietnam so far:

BEST

Friendly people. From the moment we arrived in Ha Tien to the present, we’ve been met by smiles, waves, and hellos from the locals. Undoubtedly, the highlight was the A/C minivan of businessmen who took mercy on 2 sweaty backpackers looking for a place to stay under the midday sun in Mui Ne and made sure we found a hotel. The driver even offered to take us back to Ho Chi Minh City if we were unsuccessful…

Incredible food. We’ve eaten everything from spring rolls to seafood to soup and have yet to be disappointed. Still on our list of things to try are goat, snake, and dog.

Beautiful nature. Even though we’ve only covered about a third of the country, we’ve already experienced beaches, sanddunes, forests, mountains, lakes, and rivers. Although Vietnam suffers from the same littering problem as all the other countries we’ve visited, if you manage to close your eyes to all the garbage, the scenery is picture perfect.

Floating markets. From Can Tho, a town in the Mekong Delta, we took an early morning boat trip to the floating markets which set up every day in the area. People selling mainly fruits and vegetables stuff their boats full of their wares and tie a sample to a bamboo pole in the bow. People buying these things gallantly manouver their boats around the market, picking up things as they go along and sometimes enjoying a coffee or tea from the “refreshment boat” which zigzags around.

Da Lat. A town in the mountains which, despite being made mainly of concrete and not being quite as quaint as I had thought, still possesses a certain charm. This is no doubt partly due to the fact that we have a satellite TV in our room (don’t judge – we haven’t watched TV in over 4 months!) and the lack of sweating due to the cooler temperatures at this altitude. It also checks the boxes for the first three items on this list.

WORST

Motorbikes. I thought that riding one was dangerous at first, but have now realized that the person sitting on the motorbike is much safer than the pedestrian. In HCMC, motorbikes drove in the wrong direction, across lanes, and even on the sidewalk from time to time. Even in Da Lat, I feel as if I’m watching a tennis match whenever I cross the road because I’m constantly looking in both directions and trying to stay alive.

Mosquitoes. Actually more like tiny little flies, Mui Ne seemed to be infested with insects that devoured our feet. I currently have 13 bites on one leg and 15 on the other and they all itch like hell, all the time.

Power cuts. It was around 40 degrees on the beach in Mui Ne and only marginally colder at night. After the third shower of the day and the cool breeze of a mediocre fan, it was usually possible to fall asleep without any major problems. On the evening of Liberation Day, with a group of drunken Vietnamese men sitting on the lawn outside our room, making what they probably thought was sweet music with only their voices and plastic buckets to bang on, the power went out and our fan stopped working. Add to the mix the mosquito bites, and voilĂ , you have one long and sleepless night.

Tourism and all that it entails. High prices, ugly concrete buildings, pushy salespeople, ignorant/rude foreigners. I hate it all, but as a foreginer myself, I suppose I’m to some extent adding to the problem. As much as I’d like to think, smiling a lot and knowing how to say a few words in Vietnamese doesn’t make me blend in. And that’s not only because I’m blonde.

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Traffic Chaos

Posted by maudholma on 27 April 2008

“We will pick up a few more people and then go”, S and I were told when we got into a taxi from Sihanoukville to Kampot. At this point there were four of us in the car. After few more minutes and a few more people, four of us sat in the back with the remaining four (including the driver) in the front. How someone manages to switch gears when he is wedged between a man sitting on the gearstick and a woman whose feet are competing for room with his remains a mystery to me. Maybe it’s best that way.

“We will wait for four more people and then go”, we were told when we got into a taxi for the Vietnamese border a few days later. That would have been one less than the previous time. We lucked out, and instead of waiting until the car was full managed to find another taxi with one passenger that was getting ready to leave. This time there were only two people in the front (including the driver) and four of us in the back (including two backpacks), until we stopped to pick up two more people, who squeezed into the front and seemed to think nothing of it. S and I couldn’t wait to get to Vietnam, where driving was sure to be safer and taxis not as full.

“We have no taxi here – only moto”, S and I were told after we had crossed the border and started to kindly decline motorcycle drivers’ requests to drive us the 10 km to Ha Tien, the nearest town. After all, who would put a 15 kg backpack in front of a moto driver, strap on a helmet, and hop on the back? The answer: two people with no other means of transportation. We watched a garbage truck, an egg van, and a minibus full of businessmen pass us before realizing that we were not likely to experience safe driving or empty taxis in Vietnam. After a few days of taking motos I can confirm that this still holds true. I never thought I would miss a Toyota Camry that seats eight.

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