Red dust road….Kratie & Banlung, Cambodia

We arrived in Kratie in northeast Cambodia after an uneventful 6 hour bus journey from Phnom Penh.  It is a tiny town, but is the capital of the province.  There is really not much happening here, but its a good stop over for our next destination, and they have freshwater dolphins nearby!

We checked into a cool hotel, housed in two old raised wooden structures with mosquito nets and unfortunately, an incredibly confused rooster.  If it weren’t for the rooster crowing as often as every 10 seconds (I timed him) from before 4 am until 6 pm, this place would be charming.  Ear plugs did little to drown him out and I even downloaded a noise making app just so I could sleep.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Our first day we took the ferry across to a small island in the Mekong River.  Ferry means creaky old wooden boat with a small awning and a very loud motor.  It drops you and the 10 or so other people it can fit at the edge of a long sand bank.  In the wet season, I imagine this is completely gone and the boat can go much closer to shore.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The island of Koh Trong, which is little more than a sandbar, doesn’t have electricity, except for what is provided by generators.  There is a 9 km loop around the island that you can bike or walk, dotted with wood stilt houses.  The interior of the island is mostly farmland.  It is an incredible contrast to just over the water in the town.  We opted to walk and spent the next few hours meandering along waving at the small children who were more than excited to yell ‘Hello’ at us.  While waiting for the ferry back to Kratie, we ran into a French couple from our bus.  We taught them a new card game and agreed to meet up later for dinner.  We only know a few card games and unfortunately, I tend to lose.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The next day, we rented a motorbike and drove about 20 km to the north.  We stopped at a place where people have built wooden structures over the water for lounging and swimming in the rapids.  For about 25 cents, you can enter, walk across, hang out in a hammock and picnic.  We were intrigued and paid just to go in and see what was going on.  It was Saturday, so there were lots of locals and naked kids jumping in and out of the rushing water.  We walked to the end and onto a sandbar, where some local boys were delighted to let Riki photograph them doing somersaults and flips into the sand and water.  The structures must be temporary, as the water rises a lot in the wet season and they were only a few feet above the water.  A lot of work to do just to have it destroyed come rainy season.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After, we went south 1 km to the location of the Irrawaddy dolphins.  We paid the $9 per person (very steep) to get a boat for one hour on the water.  With potentially as few as 20 dolphins left in this area, we were skeptical that we would see any.  But our 3 pm arrival seemed perfect.  A tour group was leaving and before we even got in the boat we heard and saw a dolphin surface to breathe.  The dolphins stay in this area of the river because it is protected from the current and pretty calm.  We spent the next hour craning our necks back and forth as we heard them exhale before we turned to see them.  Just as we were leaving, it seemed to be feeding time and we were able to watch a few dolphins skim the surface chasing small fish.  To say it was magical sounds corny, but it was pretty awesome.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Our last stop in the way back to town was Phnom Sambok, a small hill with a monastery on top and a decent view of the Mekong River.  As we pulled in, we were greeted by a curious monkey who was in the middle of licking and inspecting some push bikes at the base of the stairs.  He wasn’t too keen to be interrupted.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On the way back to Kratie, we pulled over and bought grilled bamboo shoots stuffed with sticky rice and a few sweet beans, which this small village is known for.  It is eaten at all times of day as a snack.  We took ours back to devour in town along the river.

WP_20150117_017_edited

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Modern Laundry sign
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Saving it for later?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There are not as many travelers further from the main cities, and this was very apparent on our next leg, as we had to take a much smaller bus to get further northeast.  It took us two hours to actually leave Kratie, as we drove around picking people up, stopping to get gas, returning to the bus station and then ultimately tying two motorbikes on the back of our little minibus.  In true Cambodian fashion, we packed 20+ people in and were off.  Eight hours later, we arrived at another small capital town, Banlung.

We met up with the same French couple from Kratie, played more cards and planned our next few days.  Many people go for 2-3 day treks here, but as Riki wasn’t feeling well, we opted to stay in town and do day trips at our own pace.  Our first spot involved a long walk through the outskirts of the city to a lake, presumably a crater as it is almost perfectly round.  We could have walked along the main road, which was busy and boring, but one of our maps had a dashed path connecting the town and the entrance to the lake.  It took us through a small village next to the town and then out into fields of dried crops.  Somewhere in the midst of these fields, someone had decided to start a small fire, a pretty standard practice here.  People burn everything, everyday.  Paper, food scraps, plastic, everything.  It makes for a odorous evening, when small fires burn all along the roads.  They also burn the undergrowth and you can frequently see black ash-laden ground under fruit trees and along fences.  Well this fire had gotten way out of control.  There were two fire trucks on the scene when we walked up and numerous bystanders.  They were nice enough to let us up on the truck to get a better look, as there was nothing they could really do.  Fields and fields of dried plants were crackling away.  One family was hosing down around their house in hopes that it wouldn’t burn that close. There is not a lot of water to spare either.  People have cisterns of water if they are lucky, which are refilled only when possible.  It is the dry season after all.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We continued along the very dusty road/trail to the lake, where we took a quick dip as the sun had hidden behind some clouds and it was a bit cool.  We walked back the same way a few hours later.  The fire was pretty much smoldering, except for a few parts and it had come quite close to the family’s home.  Seems very obvious to me how to prevent this from happening.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Stick farm?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Our last day, we rented a pink motorbike and visited three of the nearby waterfalls.  The way to the falls is scenic and passes through some outlying villages of Banlung.  Everything within 10 meters of the road is covered in a thin layer of rich red-brown dirt – plants, roofs, goods for sale, everything.  By the time we reached the first waterfall, my exposed ankles were a similar color, not that much different from the smooth brown skin of the locals.  There was a wobbly cable bridge to reach the swimming area and we watched as some monks de-robed and played in the water.  The water was pretty cold so we just stick our hands in and tried to scrub the dirt from our skin.  But to no avail, as 3 days later, I still have a lingering “sock tan.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We booked a 6 hour journey with our guesthouse to Siem Reap, involving a transfer where another minibus “will be waiting at the side of the road for you.”  An ominous sentence, so we prepare with extra snacks and the Allegiant book-on-tape.

Advertisements

History Lesson….Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Preface:

1. Check out our new poll on the sidebar – where should we go next? (full site view only)

2. If you don’t know much about Cambodia’s recent history, read up.  It’s been a rough half-century for these people.

Leaving Phu Quoc, Vietnam for Phnom Penh was probably our most confusing day of travel yet.  We knew it was going to be rough going in and we had downloaded Insurgent to listen to on the way, so we thought we were prepared.  But alas, we weren’t.  We boarded a jam packed minibus to get to the ferry, which turned out to be an older one (not the nice Superdong we took over).  Our bags were put on the open top deck, too close to the spray from the fast boat in my opinion.  An hour and half later we were picked up at the ferry station in Ha Tien by a very nice minibus, large and clean.  Thought that was a good sign.  Wasn’t.  We were shuttled to a travel agency with a bunch of other Westerners, where we were told to give over our passports, $35 and our yellow international health books to get our visas.  I’m pretty sure the visa fee is only $30, but the lady would not budge and then insisted we would have to pay an extra $1 if we didn’t give the yellow health books.  I’d like to point out that the only thing in my yellow book is a yellow fever shot I got 7 years ago.  Its not going to tell the Cambodians much, if anything.  So we did all this and were told to wait an hour.  Meanwhile, we ate lunch and waited 2 hours before being put into a different, not as nice minibus with 8 other people to go to the border, without our passports.  At the border, we were kicked out of the minibus without our bags and told to walk.  To where, we didn’t know.  We went through one building, right around the metal detectors and out again.  No one stopped us until we reached an open hut, where they actually had our passports and proceeded to distribute them to our growing group of confused tourists.  Then we were beckoned back to our minibus, which had gone through a different route.  We were told to grab our bags and switch to a different minibus, that some other tourists had come across on.  We settled in, only 10 of us, half going to Phnom Penh.  Its comforting when you have other people in the same boat.  But that sentiment didn’t last, as we went about 3 minutes down the road, past the brand new casino, and turned around.  The driver got out and beckoned for Riki and I to exit the bus (not the other 4 people going to the same place).  We were loaded onto another minibus, empty, except for the 30 or so flies swarming around.  Then we just sat there.  With the flies in the heat, no English explanation.  Eventually, a bunch of Cambodians boarded the bus and off we went.  From there we did the normal thing, load as much stuff and people as you can possibly cram into the bus and go hurtling down the road, at top speed, only to stop abruptly when someone waves you down.  We eventually arrived in Phnom Penh, got dropped off in the middle of nowhere, except conveniently next to the bus driver’s friend, a tuk tuk driver.  We paid an exorbitant price to a different tuk tuk who didn’t know where he was going and arrived 30 minutes later at our hostel.  So long story short – 5 minibuses, 1 ferry, 1 lost tuk tuk and almost 10 hours later, and we were hungry.  Walking around that evening, we ran into one of the other couples from our original minibus in Vietnam.  Turns out, after they dropped us off, they stopped on the side of the road for no apparent reason and waited as well, arriving about the same time as us, but with about 10 less people in their minibus and not left in the middle of nowhere.

Phnom Penh is the capital and largest city of Cambodia.  It has about 2 million of Cambodia’s almost 15 million people.  But there isn’t much to do as a tourist.  We walked to the waterfront and then up to the S-21 genocide museum.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEver wondered how to dry meat?  All you need is a chair and a laundry basket, and a little sun.  And maybe some flies.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In the 1970’s Cambodia had a leader, Pol Pot, who thought education was bad (despite going to universities in France).  He uprooted everyone from the cities and forced them to walk to rural areas and work the land.  So Phnom Penh became pretty deserted.  At one of the old high schools, a prison was created.  Pol Pot sent people perceived as political enemies here, some just for being educated.  Some for being “lazy.”  The people here, men, women and children, were detained and tortured until they confessed.  Most who confessed, confessed to made up things, like working for the KGB or the CIA or to wasting too much fabric in their tailoring shop.  The museum is housed in the school buildings and has an incredible exhibit on what happened here.  There are thousands of mug shots of prisoners displayed, as well as the “confessions” they made.  Once the prisoners confessed, they were killed, either from the torture or when taken to the killing fields nearby.  Only something like 12 people survived this prison.  Guards were also killed, for leaning on the walls while on duty.  In total, it is estimated that about 2 million people died while the Khmer Rouge were in power.  Half from executions and half from disease or starvation.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThey also had a video at the museum of an artist who survived, interviewing some of the guards who had worked there.  The guards were mostly teenagers at the time and had been told the prisoners were terrible enemies.  So that was a pretty somber visit.

After, we walked to the Russian Market, which has nothing to do with Russia anymore.  Then we went back to our hostel and had pizza for the first time since Nepal.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Our last day, we did a walking architecture self-tour.  It was a bit tough, as there weren’t any addresses on our guide and some of the buildings had been torn down.  But we found a book store and bought a book on Angkor Wat to prepare for next week.  We also went to the National Museum, which was mostly ancient sculptures that have been recovered from all over the world after being bought or looted from their original homes.

The next day, we boarded a real bus, – big, with only one person per seat and made it in a record 6 hours to Kratie, north and east of Phnom Penh.

Some beach time….Phu Quoc, Vietnam

Fast, reliable internet is a novelty we don’t often enjoy, so I’m a bit behind and will try to catch up while we are staying in one place for a few days.

After our journey through the Mekong Delta to the southwestern coast of Vietnam, we boarded a ferry and arrived on the island of Phu Quoc.  It is the largest island in Vietnam and is right on the border with Cambodia, conveniently for us as that is our next stop.  Phu Quoc is known for its fish sauce and black pepper.  Also, for its white sandy beaches, calm waters and diving.  For us, it is also known for many Russian tourists and very expensive, well, everything.

Despite being on the Vietnamese coast for the last few weeks, we had barely seen the sun and were excited for some beach time, though not too much, as our skin isn’t well suited for it.  Lucky for us, the trees grow really close to the water and we were able to find some shade right along the beach.

The first day we rented a scooter and rode to a few of the beaches in the north.  They were a lot less crowded than the ones near our hostel, in Duong Dong.  We stopped in Mango Bay, commandeered some beach chairs from the resort and enjoyed the calm, warm gulf waters before dipping in their pool.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I had read about a hostel along a nearby beach that had great food and excellent reviews on Tripadvisor.  We backtracked a bit to find it, parked our scooter at the end of a road along the beach and followed a sign down the water, already starving.  We had to jump over a rocky shore and cut across a fancy resort’s beach, but we made it and had a great view.  That apparently, is the easy way to reach them.  However, when we arrived, the cook was at the market, but would be back soon we were told.  We waited about an hour with a couple of beers and the very pregnant cook/proprietor returned with fresh fish and shrimp.  We had a vague notion before we came that maybe we would end up staying here, as our hostel in town was pretty expensive and this place was supposed to be cheap and great.  After seeing the “rooms” though, that wasn’t much of an option.  There were mosquito nets, but the walls were blue tarps and you could clearly see sunlight through the roof.  Luckily, we decided against it, as it poured that night and I can’t imagine the guests stayed dry.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After a long, delicious lunch, we visited another northern beach, with even less people, but more trash.  All over Asia, we’ve discovered that people just throw their trash wherever.  Its really sad and only a few places do you actually see trash cans.  And who knows if anyone even empties those.  Mostly, people will just burn small piles along the street.  But anyway, we rode back to town and spent the next two days exploring the nearby beaches.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We had originally planned to stay until our Vietnamese visa ran out, but the island is pretty expensive and we decided to leave a few days early.  We can’t spend much time in the sun anyway.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Drying squid covered in huge bees.

 Another crazy bus/boat journey ahead….to Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Better Late than Never….Laos thoughts by Riki

(Photo slideshow at the bottom)

First beer in Laos – Little boy across the street just drops trow and pees on the street facing us (perfectly good fence behind him to pee on) – same age as the kids driving the scooters here.

Julie – first couple of hours in Lao – “I really like the feel of this place”

My thought @ our first dinner – this girl is 10 and is serving everbody at the restaurant (quicker than anybody ever did in Nepal), also her little sister is the one bringing the beer out to everybody (the bottles are about a third of her size and she is wearing a Cinderella tshirt)… no child labor laws?

Luang Prabang – gorgeous french colonial architecture, loads of tourists (a lot of families), cool hostel, delicious soup that get spicier each night you visit, and the most amazing waterfalls I have ever seen!

Sooo many nice Lao people everywhere!

Vang Vieng:

The roosters are extremely loud and annoying here, but they are also some of the most beautiful I have ever seen

There was a lizard, about the size of a late 90’s cell phone, behind our door in Vang Vieng, and when I tried to move the door to take a picture, he barked at me…. We would later hear him barking at other people throughout the hostel

“Friends” (the old tv show) is on all the time at almost every restaurant/bar here… its really odd

The tubing here is also odd (compared to S. Louisiana tubing of course), as soon as you get in, you get out to go to a bar where you get bracelets with every drink and the bartender takes free shots with you, everybody proceeds to get plastered (there was a dancing musical tubes and I learned so many sweeet moves from this one guy with a rat tail…), and I’m pretty sure our group was the only one that finished the whole route to the town (there are three or four or five bars along the river that you get off at – apparently the gov’t cracked down because there used to be 20)

Actually met a couple of those people that said “came for 4 days, ended up staying a year” now they work at bars helping drunk tourists get drunker

Vientiene

Everybody has a new, fancy, white SUVs/trucks…. No old cars in town, maybe a couple of sedans, but all white and new

They have sidewalks here!! That you can use (that aren’t motorcycle parking lots)!!!

Vientiene is quite a fancy city, at least the central distrcit, and especially compared to the rest of Laos

I am now ok with putting Ice in my beer… because they bring you a big tub of it when they bring you your beer and because its hot and because everybody does it, please don’t judge me if I do this forever (with certain beer and at certain temperatures of course)

Surprisingly expenive (compared to surrounding places we have been) – one Italian we met said that it cost him just as much to live there as it did in italy… but they still had cheap beer

The sandwiches here are great (and at the beginning of our travels we were apprehensive to eat sandwiches because we heard you don’t want to eat the lettuce inside them, but we were totally ok)

Every tourist here is travelling the same route, so we have seen many of the same people we have befriended here on multiple occasions in multiple cities/towns

We saw star fruit… on a tree! (we were pretty excited because we had never seen that before, and never thought about where the fruit might come from…. The stars?)

The bus companies and tuktuks are all in on a scam together, in every town or city! The bus will always drop you off well outside the city (even though there may be a bus station in the center) where everybody is forced to get off and you have to hire one of the tuktuk drivers to get you in town (who are of course friends with the bus drivers). We would just start walking towards the street and they usually dropped their price in half, but still….

I’m pretty sure the Beer Lao company is also in charge of all the storefront signs in this country, b/c everyplace has their name with the beerlao logo right next to it, even if they don’t obviously sell the beer

On Julie’s bday we went bowling – and besides eating seaweed flavored chips and putting ice in my beer – we bowled like the Lao do… which involves all the regular bowling techniques, except you hold on to the ball longer, throw it real high, and I guess try to make it bounce a couple of times before it hits the pins…

Julie is a happy camper when she gets banana pancakes!

Malaria medication sucks (for the side effects…)

Hands down the worst chopsticks in Asia! They are always splintering and falling apart, no matter where you are eating

The animals in Laos don’t particularly like white people (or maybe just us)… we had a couple of experiences… But the people were amazing and the kids super cute! They would always try to outdo one another when saying Sabaidee(hello) to us.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Out of the cold & rain….Southern Vietnam

Another long one….

An eight hour bus from Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh City arrived only 15 minutes late and we were fortunate enough to have time to meet up with a former travelling companion of mine from Costa Rica for a few beers before he had to catch a train north.  Probably the most punctual we have been so far in Vietnam.  Thrilled to be out of the cold temperatures and rain, we were greeted with thick heat and intense sunshine.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is still very often referred to as Saigon.  It is the largest city in Vietnam, by a lot as far as we can tell.  There are over 9 million people and I’m pretty sure they all own motorbikes.  The city is teeming with them.  Having been under French control, there is still some French influence here, most notably for us, in the bakery department.  One morning, while sitting at a bakery (where we went numerous more times), we ran into a Canadian that we bowled with a month prior in Laos.  This has happened to us a few times in the past few months.  It’s a small world, even over here.

We always try to walk as much as possible for a few reasons.  It saves money, keeps us in shape, and most importantly, we see a lot more.  In many cases, we see a lot of strange stuff.  Animals in cages on the backs of motorbikes being no exception.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Pet chipmunks?

 

We haven’t heard of Vietnamese in the south eating dogs, hopefully that’s just the north because these guys were really cute.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  Our first day, we walked across town towards the War Remnants Museum.  It being closed for two hours in the middle of the day caused a bit of delay, but we wandered the neighborhood while we waited for it to re-open. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Everybody naps in the afternoon, even the motorbike drivers.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Brave lady on a bike in a sea of motorbikes
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Patiently waiting for Riki to take pictures.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
When the War Remnants Museum re-opened, we joined a throng of other tourists to see the exhibit on the war crimes committed against the Vietnamese.   There really should be an identical museum like this in DC.  They displayed the “tiger cages” where the South Vietnamese government kept political prisoners.  The small cages would hold 3 people, but they could only lie down.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
It was a sobering exhibit, full of gruesome pictures that make you feel horrible for the people who endured such tragedy.  The Agent Orange room is particularly depressing, as some of the photos are recent of people with disabilities related to their parents being exposed to herbicidal warfare by the Americans.

Despite the atrocities they have been through by the Americans, the Vietnamese people we have encountered have been so friendly and helpful.  It wasn’t something I expected and many people, from home and who we have met here, are curious as to how we have been treated.  And I guess it all comes down to, well, they won.  And communism didn’t destroy the world.  But there is a lot of propaganda here still – not that we know what most of it says.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We have been travelling for over four months now, which has flown by.  However, it has taken a toll on us, specifically my backpack.  Riki’s 30 year old bag, a loaner from my parents, is doing well – no rips, tears or even noticeable stains.  Mine on the other hand (a $30 Hong Kong buy from my parents’ last visit) has been on its last legs for about a month.  After repairing seams a second time, I decided to trade in (but not up).  We visited quite a few markets around HCMC and I finally settled on a $20 knockoff which appears bus-worthy.  Well, the zipper for the raincover broke on its first outing, but if I get three months out of it, I’ll call it even.  Oh, and its green!

Our last morning, we checked out of our 3 room guesthouse down a narrow alley and hit the streets to kill an afternoon before our night bus to the coast.  We encountered more sleeping in strange positions, animals on the back of motorbikes (goldfish & a chicken on a leash attached to a motorbike) and a cool sport played by all ages in the parks.  The name of this game is unknown, including to the locals we spoke to (students trying to practice their English) but we now own a unique looking shuttlecock with feathers and plastic noise makers.  Someday we will be pros.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Unfortunately, during our outing, Riki slipped on some garbage goo in the street and was coated foot to thigh in stinky black liquid.  And we had stored our bags at the travel agency already.  But we hiked back to our stuff and got him cleaned up a bit in the tiniest, smelliest toilet ever.  That should have been an omen about the rest of our journey to come.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
I snuck a picture while I was entrusted to hold the camera during the garbage incident.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After watching a few hours of people practicing this unknown sport, we went back to the travel agent to retrieve our bags.  They piled us into a taxi and dropped us off at the bus company’s office.  We waiting almost an hour there and then we were summoned to put our bags in a minivan.  Well, the minivan had no more seats, so a Vietnamese lady, Riki and I were put in a car without our bags (a first class no-no in Asia).  But through hand gestures, we were told it was fine and we would follow the minivan.  Well, we did, but not right away and the fear that comes as you watch your bag slowly disappear into the night is not something I’d like to experience again.  With the bags long gone, we discovered our driver was only just learning how to drive (a car that is we think, everyone drives motorbikes).  The other man from the bus company in the passenger’s seat kept pointing at the mirrors and yanking on the steering wheel, while the driver made his way slowly through the city.  But he only stalled once and we didn’t hit anything, so let’s call it a win.  It was a snail’s pace, but we finally made it to the bus station, where we found our bags waiting for us.

Six hours later, at 4 am we were dropped in the middle of nowhere at a gas station.  We were the only Westerners told to get off, which was disconcerting, as we knew everyone was headed to the same island, Phu Quoc.  But we got in the waiting shuttle and the driver left us at the ferry terminal to wait for three hours at an outdoor cafe until the boat left.  We played cards and drank thick, sweet coffee until it was time to board.  None of this was communicated to us when we bought the tickets.

 Next stop, Phu Quoc, for white sand beaches and the best fish sauce in Vietnam.

Hue to Da Lat, Christmas & New Years….Central Vietnam

I have been negligent with the posting, due to the holidays I guess, so this is a long one.  Sorry.

We arrived in Hue during a heavy downpour.  Having put all our things in dry bags and donning our rain covers, we headed toward the hostels.  However, Riki discovered his rain jacket no longer functions in the arms and we were pretty wet by the time we arrived at the hostel.

Hue is an old imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty until 1945 and thus has an impressive citadel.  Or it used to.  Hue was heavily damaged in the 1960s by bombings and much of the city was damaged.  The citadel, which we visited the next day is under reconstruction.  There are a few buildings left, but also many ruins.  We ate some incredible food (all recommended by our hotel), including pork cooked on lemongrass sticks wrapped in greens and rice paper dipped in peanut sauce (has a shorter name but I don’t recall it), clams with rice, and beef pho.  We also shopped around for a new raincoat for Riki, but the only options are knock-off North Faces with questionable seams or knock-off North Faces of shoddy material.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The next day, we hopped on a bus to Da Nang, where we were treated by Riki’s dad to 5 nights at the Hyatt on the beach for Christmas.  The bus trip seemed to be going well and speedy despite the bumpy roads.  But after descending a small mountain, we started crawling along with people honking and passing us left and right (buses left, motorbikes right).  After ten minutes of this, we pulled over into a large gas station, where we all disembarked to discover the front wheel well of the bus noticeably lower than the back.  While the passengers proceeded to use the facilities (trough toilets for both men and women), the driver’s helper got behind the wheel well with a screw driver and jacked the bus back up to a normal level.

All was well and we were conveniently dropped off in front of the Hyatt, right on the beach.  We checked-in and took the hotel’s shuttle back to Da Nang for provisions and sightseeing.  Sightseeing included a museum on Cham sculpture and a walk along their waterfront to see the dragon bridge.  Da Nang is a large port city, not a very common stop for tourists.  We returned to the Hyatt to discover an incredible smorgasbord provided during the free cocktail hour(s).  This turned out to be our dinner for almost every night of our stay.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The next day, Christmas Eve, we took the shuttle 20 minutes south to Hoi An.  We located a tailor recommended to us and proceeded to order a full suit for Riki, including vest and two dresses for me.  Hoi An is a UNESCO site and is charmingly preserved.  Small streets with limited traffic reminded us of New Orleans and at night, colorful lanterns hang from every structure.  As a former bustling port, Hoi An has been influenced by trade all over Asia and even the Middle East.  When the river began to become clogged with mud, major trade was moved to Da Nang, abandoning Hoi An and enabling it to be well preserved in its historic context.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We spent Christmas Eve with the Hyatt’s complimentary food and drinks.  And then we watched Frozen. Yes, I know we are late to the game.  And Riki has been singing the song ever since (except he interchanges the words randomly, ie “Let it Snow, Let it Flow, etc).

We spent the next few days walking on the beach (despite the rain) and enjoying the amenities that come with a real hotel, like hot water, bathtubs, toilets that don’t get wet when you shower, AND free food and drinks (I could go on and on – the Hyatt is on the opposite end of the spectrum of every place we have stayed thus far).  Surprisingly, or not, we did not meet anyone there doing what we are doing.  Lots of families though.

We ventured back to Hoi An again for another tailor fitting and to wander the little streets.  The weather was less than desirable, but there were tons of tourists poking around the many shops and restaurants.

On our last day, we soaked up as much luxury as we could, took all the little soaps they gave us and headed back down to Hoi An to pick up our new clothes and catch the overnight bus to Nha Trang.

We arrived at 8 am in the small beach town of Nha Trang.  I slept a few hours between the honking and bumpy roads, but Riki didn’t.  We took advantage of a morning without rain though and wandered  the neighborhoods before taking a nap.  That evening, we discovered that Nha Trang is swarming with Russian tourists.  Everything in the tourist area is written in Cyrillic and we were spoken to in Russian a number of times, by locals and Russians themselves. We weren’t terribly impressed with the city, but did walk all the way up the beach to Po Nagar towers.  This Cham temple complex is from 781 situated on a small hill overlooking the water.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We walked back through little neighborhoods and even found Riki a place to grill his own seafood.  Unfortunately, the beach was crowded with tourists and the water was very rough, so we opted to skip that, even though the sun came out for a few hours.

New Year’s Eve we took a morning bus to Dalat.  We had heard there was a celebration and everyone we asked said there would be music and fireworks that night.  But the city appeared pretty dead.  So we booked a canyoning tour for the next day and wandered through the city and the market.

That night, we went out to the center of town and found a stage set up with music playing.  People began dancing on the stage and locals gathered in the street to watch (no clapping though after each set).  At 10:15 pm, the music abruptly stopped and everyone scattered.  We were thoroughly confused and sat on some steps with our cozies of Tiger Beer hoping something else would happen.  When it was obvious the locals were all going home and there would be no fireworks, we walked to a bar where we found about 15 Westerners hanging out and playing pool.  At midnight, Riki had to remind everyone what time it was and we cheers-ed and continued chatting with a Dutch guy we have run into three times as we have headed down Vietnam.

I have one word for the next day, terrifying.  We went canyoning or abseiling or rappelling – a controlled descent down a rock.  Except some of the rocks we descended were actually waterfalls.  The dry ones were fine, but the wet ones, where you can’t see from above what you are about to do, well, I didn’t find that as entertaining.  I think Riki disagrees and had a great time, despite his “fear of heights.”

We were lucky as the sun came out a few times.  Otherwise, the water was pretty chilly, but when you are too busy concentrating on not losing your footing, you don’t notice the temperature.  Not until you get down and out. It was pretty exhausting and the walk at the end was very steep and conveniently included walking up the trail that was being used as the barrier for a controlled burn.  Very tough to breath as it was without all the smoke.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

When we got back to town, the place was swarming with Vietnamese tourists.  Apparently, they get four days off for the holiday, but nobody arrived until sometime on the first.

We spent our last day at a flower garden packed with people, shopping at the handicraft stores, and visiting our favorite bakery.  Dalat is called the city of eternal spring, as it is warm or cool during the day and colder at night.  The weather was pretty dreary our last day and it got very cold at night.  The Vietnamese were decked out in down jackets, hats, gloves, scarves, etc.  We had our thin fleeces and were fine.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The cold never bothered me anyway. (Frozen is everywhere)

Next stop – Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon