The One Less Traveled By: a chronicle of my yearlong sabbatical

Vietnam Part 2 (Dalat to the Mekong Delta)
December 23, 2009, 7:35 am
Filed under: Vietnam

From Hoi An I took an overnight train down to the coastal city of Nha Trang, where I immediately grabbed a small local bus to Dalat in Vietnam’s central highlands.  Along the way I met up with a British guy named Adrian who was also traveling that way, and we found ourselves the only foreigners on the bus. The road up into the mountains was very bumpy and windy and hot; pretty soon two or three of the other passengers started hurling.  This being Vietnam, the bus didn’t stop or slowdown; instead, plastic bags were distributed and we pushed on.  I smelled things that day I will never forget.   

Dalat’s clean, cool mountain air was welcome relief.  Adrian and I stayed only one and a half days there, as there is not a lot to do.  After walking around the main city the day we arrived, the next day we rented motorbikes to check out some nearby sights.  The first place we stopped was the famous Valley of Love, perhaps the single cheesiest place in the whole of Asia.  Built, incredibly, not as a joke, it occupies a gorgeous lake and surrounding hills but is peppered with fake animals (lions, zebras, crocodiles, dinosaurs, etc.), fake statues (Venus de Milo, Romeo and Juliet), and Vietnamese dressed as Native Americans and western cowboys.  Because the lake would be too beautiful and serene standing alone, they blast Vietnamese love ballads over loud speakers across the lake.   

The Valley of Love surroundings

Adrian and I being manly

Totally lifelike nature scenes (the T-Rex is just out of frame)

After that we headed to XQ Silk Embroidery, which was absolutely astounding. The embroidery is a large complex of buildings and courtyards arranged in a very Zen-like fashion.  It was the most mellow, relaxing, serene place I’d been in ages.  The embroidery work itself was amazing:   the detail, color, and beauty of the works rivaled any classical painting; some were over a dozen feet long.  We enjoyed it so much there that we headed back that evening for dinner, where we listened to music and were befriended by a Vietnamese girl who wanted to practice her English (she was, incidentally, moving to Washington D.C. in a week to study) and who made sure we ordered all the best dishes.     

Lady at work at the XQ Silk Embrodiery

One of the hundreds of finished works

Detail from one of the works

The next day we mountainbiked from Dalat down to the coastal town of Mui Ne, a 79km trip, with a company called Phat Tire Adventures.  Along the way we passed through a couple of small mountain villages (what the Vietnamese call minority villages), where the kids toppled over each other as they raced to the street to wave at us and yell hello.  One 10km stretch was all downhill on a narrow, windy road with banked turns and hardly any cars at all, so we were able to go top speed for ages.  That stretch was some of the most fun biking I’ve ever done.  The last 30km was flat, so Adrian, the guide, and I took turns leading the pack and drafting as we kept a punishing pace.  Our little pelotan got lots of attention.     

Adrian and I after the long descent down the mountains from Dalat

When we arrived in Mui Ne we traded our bikes for our bags and headed to a little hotel right on the beach.  Mui Ne is famous for being windy – perhaps the most consistently windy place in Asia – making it a mecca for kiteboarding and windsurfing.  I ended up taking five hours of kiteboarding lessons spread over two days.  The first few hours I spent learning how to rig and launch a kite and practicing flying a small practice kite on the beach.  Then, after practicing on the beach flying a full sized kite (anywhere from 8-12 square meters with about 20 meters of line from kite to person), I went into the water with the instructor to practice using the kite to drag myself, headfirst through the water.  After several times with the instructor dragging behind me on my harness, I went it alone several times.  The five hours was just enough to get me comfortable body dragging, but not yet up on a board.  The power of the wind in the kite is absolutely staggering and pretty damn scary.  Several times I got picked up out of the water (only my ankles touching) and slammed back down, not to mention dragged along the sand.  Horror stories abound:  one Vietnamese guy who now owns and operates a kiteboarding school in Mui Ne (and lived in San Francisco for 30 years), once was in an induced coma for 2 months after a kiteboarding accident that left his lungs filled with sand.  While not kiteboarding, Adrian and I explored the nearby fishing village on motorbike, sampled some delicious seafood, and paid a visit to the nearby sand dunes.      

Mui Ne has an active fishing village

Mui Ne at dusk

Roadside ban xeo - seafood pancakes folded over with bean sprouts inside served in a bowl of sweet chili broth

Practicing levitating at the dunes

After four days in Mui Ne I headed on to Ho Chi Minh City (fka Saigon) while Adrian stayed put for more kiteboarding.  I arrived in HCMC/Saigon pretty late and after checking into a guesthouse went out for food and beer.  I decided to head to a spot recommended not long ago by the NY Times, and flagged down a motorbike taxi.  Saigon is a big, sprawling city, and after driving for a while, dodging and weaving other motorbikes and cars, we arrived at the address to find the building had been demolished.  This became a common sight:  there are massive cranes littered around the city putting up new, glossy buildings where old ones had stood.  One development is named Times Square.  After driving around for a bit more, I told the extremely friendly and accommodating driver to take me somewhere he recommended.  This started a bit of an adventure, as he took me way out of the city center tourist area to some seriously local spots.  But, as it was nearing 10:30pm, most of the places he took me to had stopped serving dinner and were just serving beer (over ice, as the Vietnamese drink it).  It was a great way to see the city, though, and we ran into a group of about 100 teenagers watching other kids drag racing their motorbikes down a quiet street.  After about a half-hour of riding around, my driver took me to a riverside restaurant either run or owned by his sister, I never could quite understand.  He ordered for us, and we had a feast.  The first thing he ordered, which I thought were going to be chicken wings to go with our beers, were whole barbecued chicken feet, bones, cartilage and all.  To be polite, I ate one, starting at the toes and working my way up to the ankle.  But it got better from there, and we ended up staying there until about 1.      

Tuan, my motorbike taxi driver, and me eating dinner

The next day I rented a motorbike to see the sights, most notably the War Remembrance Museum, formerly known as the Museum of American War Crimes, a more apt description for what lay inside.  Outside there is an impressive display of captured U.S. military weaponry (planes, tanks, bombs, sub-machine guns, mine).  Inside is where the heavy comes.  The photos of the human effects of Agent Orange and the Napalm bombs are among the most distributing photographs I’ve ever seen; they are the sorts of photos that don’t make it into U.S. texts on the Vietnam War.  Those photos are just the tip of the icebery. The museum, also pays tribute to the about 17 photographers from all over the world who were killed while documenting the war.    

Big ole bomb

Saigon's Opera House

The following day I paid a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels.  These tunnels, lying only about 60km from Saigon, were part of the network of tunnels that the VC built..  That network stretched all the way to the Cambodian border, hundreds of kilometers away, and helped the North win the war.  The tunnel system is amazing: it includes everything from boardrooms, to hospitals, to kitchens and homes.  Something like 20 children were born and raised underground.  The tunnels themselves are incredibly small.  Those portions where tourists can go in requiring near crawling and are barely wide enough for my shoulders, and that is after being enlarged.  Going down several meters into the dark, cramped tunnels was definitely anxiety-inducing.  At the tunnels there is a firing range where, for a hefty fee, you can fire live rounds from all sorts of guns – AK-47s, to M16s and M60s.   I chose the AK-47 and squeezed off several rounds.  The noise created by those the guns is absolutely deafening and painful on the eardrums.  I don’t know how people actually handle it in live combat (I don’t think you can fight a war with two fingertips in your ears….)     

Our guide showing us one of the hidden entrances to the tunnels - this one has been widened for western tourists

Getting ready to defend democracy with a live M60

 As the final weeks of my trip approached, I had no time to linger, so I headed on to the Mekong Delta.  I stayed in Can Tho, the largest city in the region, for two days.  On the second morning, at about 5am, me and a German guy boarded a little wooden boat motored by a little old Vietnamese lady and took a 5 hour trip along the river to visit the two nearest floating markets.  (They were not particularly far away, but this boat did not move particularly fast.)  It was a great way to get an upclose, unhurried view of the Mekong Delta.  Other than that, there is not a whole lot to do in Can Tho, so I again rented a motorbike to explore the backroads.  I was surprised when I came across one short stretch of river lined with enormous gated mansions, only one of which looked occupied.  That and searching out the best coffee joint pretty much kept me busy my short time there.  Next I headed to Chau Doc, another city in the Mekong Delta which lies near the border with Cambodia but I had only a day there as Cambodia beckoned… 

Sunrise on the Delta

Dragonfruit vendor bringing her wares to market

One of the floating markets near Can Tho

We stopped here for breakfast (BBQ pork and rice) at one of the floating markets

A vendor in Can Tho - the large orange bags are dried shrimp

The Mekong Delta's backroads


Chiang Mai and Vietnam Part 1 (Hanoi to Hoi An)
December 15, 2009, 10:31 am
Filed under: Thailand, Vietnam

It’s been ridiculously long since my last update, so I’m going to have to pack quite a bit into this one and dig way back into the beer-stained recesses of my memory.  Also, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot: if I’d had more time, I would have written you a shorter blog post.

(For those of you who want to skip all the text below and instead just look at the pics (I will not judge you; I’d likely do the same), here is a summary: I went to Chiang Mai, Thailand and did stuff; then went to Hanoi, where it was loud and I drank coffee and did stuff; then went to China Beach, where I partied; and then to Hoi An, where I partied and got a suit made, but not in that order.)

After Ko Lanta (my last post) I headed to Chiang Mai, nestled against the mountains in northern Thailand.  Having only booked a flight there the day before on a whim I didn’t know what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised and ended up staying 4 or 5 nights.  The city is Thailand’s second largest and has a cosmopolitan mix of students, artists and artisans, expats, sex tourists and backpackers.  There also are heaps of Buddhist monks of all ages:  Chiang Mai has nearly as many Buddhist temples as Bangkok, although it’s only a fraction of Bangkok’s size.  The guesthouse where I stayed abutted the street where most of the “bar girls” plied their trade, so I also got to witness the parade of old sleezers supporting that sector of the economy.

My first day in Chiang Mai I spent walking around the old quarter, visiting some of the Buddhist temples and stupas, and sampling from the various food stalls.  Usually the stalls served just one (very spicy) thing, so I’d sit down, wait until it arrives and hope it was edible.

Young Buddhist monks passing by the offering tins

One of Chiang Mai's many Buddhist wats

Barbecued fish on sticks

Another day I rented a motorbike and went for a drive up into the surrounding mountains.  There is a beautiful temple, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, at the top of the nearest mountain, a perch that gives it a commanding view of Chiang Mai.  From there I followed a comically narrow two-way, pock-marked road another 15km or so further into the mountains to a lush coffee plantation which serves incredibly fresh, delicious coffee.

Cute little Hmong girl on the steps leading up to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep

Making an offering to a monk at Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep

Gold-plated figurines at Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep

Coffee plantation well into the mountains

The following day I took a Thai cooking class on an organic farm.  After heading to a local morning market to learn about the varieties of rice, spices, and sauces, we spent the day making green curry with chicken, tom yum soup with shrimp, chicken with holy basil, pad thai, and bananas with coconut milk.  Having already been in Thailand a few weeks, by the end of the class I was sick of Thai food, so my next few meals were sandwiches and smoothies at a local health food café.  (To be fair, I’ve had fresh fruit smoothies nearly every day I’ve been here since they’re served everywhere and cost between for 50 cents and a dollar.)  I also attended a muay thai (Thai kickboxing) fight.  There were six fights, the first of which featured kids who must have been no older than ten, but still beat the hell out of each other.  Without exception all of the fighters were in unbelievable shape, had massive legs, and kicked faster and harder than I thought possible.  Unfortunately, nobody got knocked out – I would have liked to see that.

Vegetable vendor

Chilis, garlic, and shallots

Getting ready to make green curry paste

After Chiang Mai I flew to Hanoi, Vietnam.  The first noticeable thing about Hanoi is the traffic—both the volume and noise.   There are thousands if not millions of motorbikes screaming by in every direction, and virtually no stoplights (those that do exist are ignored by about half the motorists, which is even more confusing than if everybody ignored them).  Crossing the street for the first time was very intimidating and involved several false starts after a good half-minute of paralysis.  Motorbikes and cars never look before pulling out into traffic or pulling alongside the curb, so I regularly had to jump (literally) out of the way to avoid being hit.  Unfortunately, Vietnamese motorists use the horn in lieu of the break so there is non-stop honking all day long.  Once I was curious to see how long I could count between honks, and after a few minutes the highest I got was 4 seconds.  The drivers don’t seem to realize that when everybody is continually honking it becomes meaningless because it’s impossible to tell who is honking at what.  Aside from a museum or two, there is no refuge from the blaring horns, and by the fourth day in Hanoi I was starting to develop turrets.

Crossing the street

Flower vendor

Despite the traffic, I enjoyed Hanoi, particularly its old-world charm thanks to the French colonial influence, which also brought with it excellent bread and amazing coffee to Vietnam (two things Thailand seriously lacks).  I spent many hours drinking Vietnamese coffee at some of the thousands of cafes around the city.  Proper Vietnamese coffee, like excellent espresso, is incredibly dense, rich and delicious, and is served either black (with sugar) or white (with sweetened condensed milk), and either iced or hot.  One type of coffee I have not been brave enough to try is kopi luwak, or weasel coffee, because it’s really shit coffee.  Really.  It’s made by feeding coffee berries to weasels, then collecting the berries from their poop and roasting them to make coffee beans.  I did, however, have some excellent food while in Hanoi.  Of particular fondness was a meal of bun cha (no idea what that means) which consisted of a large bowl full of roasted pork patties and strips in a broth, along with two enormous spring rolls filled with crab (by far the best spring rolls I’ve ever had), a heaping portion of rice noodles, a basket full of fresh lettuce and herbs (mint, parsley, sage, etc), and some sweet chili soup to dip everything in.  It was enough to feed two or three, and cost less than $3.

Traditional Vietnamese coffee slowly dripping out over sweetened condensed milk

In addition to gluttony, I also partook of some culture.  I visited the Ho Chi Minh museum, which is bizarre and interesting:  the majority of it is a series of post-modernist art installations that seem to have little connection to Uncle Ho, or even be something of which he’d likely approve.  (Neither would he approve, I’m sure, of the golf courses named after him, the streets lined with the latest flat screen TVs for sale, or the Gucci or Prada boutiques.)  I also visited the famous “Hanoi Hilton” prison where U.S. soldiers, like John McCain, were held as POWs.  The prison originally was built by the French to house/torture Vietnamese dissidents, communists and rabble-rousers (how dare they desire independence or self-governance!), and the majority of the prison museum tells that story.  The few rooms dedicated to the imprisonment of Americans during the American War of Aggression mainly try to show how well the POWs were treated (musical instruments! playing cards! souvenirs!), despite reports to the contrary.  Perhaps my most authentic cultural outing was a visit to the bia hoi (fresh beer) stands, which is basically an outdoor kegger where Vietnamese men (never women) gather and drink 20-cents-a-glass beer.

Ho Chi Minh mausoleum

Giant fruit dispay at the Ho Chi Minh museum

The "Hanoi Hilton" - now with a brand new tower!

John McCain's flight suit

After four days in Hanoi I needed a break from the noise, so I headed down to China Beach in central Vietnam, famous as the spot where American soldiers headed for R&R during the war.  The beach is 30km long and, at the moment, mostly undeveloped and empty, except for two fancy resorts and a little, legendary backpackers joint called Hoa’s Place, which sits all alone on the beach.  I ended up parking myself at Hoa’s for several days but could have stayed much longer; it has been a highlight of the trip.  Run since the early 1990s by Hoa, who speaks excellent English, and his wife, Hoa’s Place attracts a motley crew of backpackers.  The rooms are drab and beat, but the place rocks.

When I arrived well after midnight due to a flight that had been delayed 7 hours, I thought the place might be closed for the night.  Instead, I was welcomed with roaring cheers by a group that had been partying hard for hours, and immediately was shown by the caretaker where to find the icebox of beer and told to help myself.   Everything at Hoa’s is on the honor system:  every guest is responsible for keeping a tally of what they have, be it beer, food, cigarettes, water, soda, etc., and then paying whenever they decide to leave.  This really adds to the laidback atmosphere.  Also, all dinners are communal, family style affairs at 7 every night, so everybody gets to know everybody else.  While there I got to know about a dozen Australians, a half-dozen New Zealanders, a couple of Dutch, several Brits, an Irish girl and guy who drank early and often (doing nothing to combat the stereotype), several Canadians, two couples from the US of A, a couple of Germans, and a South African.  Most evenings – well, every evening in fact – turned into late-night parties with bonfires on the beach, fueled by the 40-cent Beer LaRue and bottles of rum for a dollar.   Daytime I spent on the beach and in the ocean, or drinking beer with Hoa and others.  There is decent surf at China Beach, but this time of year the incredibly strong riptides make surfing dangerous.

A small stretch of China Beach - largely empty since the American presence

Whiling away the afternoon at Hoa's Place

Hoa and his wife

Living the good life

I also paid a visit to nearby Marble Mountain, a small hill from which marble was quarried for many years and which now contains several Buddhist shrines and an active stonecutting industry.

A marble cutter

Inside Marble Mountain

Marble Buddha

Sadly, as with most all of Vietnam, China Beach is changing rapidly and soon will lose its appeal as a long stretch of undisturbed, undeveloped beach.  Every parcel of land along the 30km of beach has been doled out to developers to build massive and luxurious resorts and casinos (Le Meridien, Hyatt Regency Residences, etc.).   Even the land under Hoa’s Place has been sold to a developer, and Hoa will be forced to move on in a year or two.  Fortunately, for the time being, most construction has been halted due to the world economic catastrophe (!), but it’s only a matter of time before Hoa’s Place is no more.

From China Beach, I took a taxi 20km or so south to Hoi An, on the way avoiding by just inches a head-on collision with a massive Russian-style truck (it was close enough to make me yell “holy sh*t”).  Vietnam likely has one of the highest traffic-related fatalities rates in the world, with over 16,000 deaths last year, a 10% increase from the year before.  Good times.  In any event, Hoi An is a beautiful little city that largely avoided being bombed during the wars with the Japanese, then the French, and finally the Americans.   Hoi An is famous for its tailors – there are about 200 tailor shops in town – who can and do make just about anything in any style.  I only spent a day and a half there, but in that time I got a custom-made suit and a shirt.  After being measured and sitting for five fittings, the suit fits like a charm.  The one night I spent in Hoi An I met up with a group of Australians and a group of New Zealanders that I had met at Hoa’s Place, and after some drinks we headed out with some locals, Vu and Hung, for a night of karaoke.  After being kicked out around 2am, we headed for some late-night fish-ball pho (noodle soup), and finished the night sipping on homemade rice wine and nibbling on little cakes of congealed pig’s blood.  I’m not sure which tasted worse, the warm moonshine or warm blood patties.

Old town Hoi An

In front of the tailor's shop

Drinks in Hoi An with some of the people I met in China Beach - not sure what the dude next to me, Benny, is doing

Benny and Vu getting bizzare during karaoke