A Travellerspoint blog

Rise and Shine, Hanoi!

by gabrielle

sunny 94 °F

So who's jealous of our TWO 24+ bus rides?? I know Swhite mentioned our "rest stops" on the mountainside but how about a trough style ladies' rest room? No stalls, no walls, no barriers of any kind just a row of elevated tile (or concrete) with angled blocks to guide the stream the same direction. Yikes is right! Every once in a while when I get really awe struck by the scenery or overwhelmed by how fortunate I feel to be where I am seeing what I am seeing and doing what I am doing I get to pee at the trough. Then I remember that travel in developing countries is as far from glamorous as you can possibly get and lots and lots of things don't go smoothly or happen easily and you're not always welcome or treated fairly or even nicely but that is part of the adventure, yes but also just the reality of the situation. Our last week in Vietnam hit us with the "ugly side" of travel a few too many times but we rallied and finished off our trip like champs visiting Cat Ba Island, Sapa and Hanoi.

After our week in Laos we stopped overnight briefly in Hanoi and then headed out again the next morning to Cat Ba Island to see the Halong Bay area. Cat Ba City was a cute little place that consisted of one main drag along the water and lots of vacationers. It was unique however because the vacationers were all Vietnamese people on weekend getaways from Hanoi or somewhere else on the mainland. It's nice getting recommendations from other travelers and all but you definitely feel a little more legit when the locals choose to vacation in the same place too.

We took a bus, boat and then another bus to get from Hanoi to Cat Ba and saw some nice scenery, questionable driving practices (but what else is new) as well as a creative haircut on this young lad!
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Our first afternoon in Cat Ba we swam at the local beach with some serious waves, talked to a friendly local woman, and posed for a few pics with our fans (some young Vietnamese boys). It was also a lovely evening so we wandered around and took some pics while on a watermelon hunt. We have tried to buy an entire watermelon before and the people always slice it up and give us two servings worth anyway but the woman in Cat Ba just filled a small grocery bag worth of slices and gave us the whole thing! When its that hot and muggy sometimes all you want to do is drink water, or eat it in this case.
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On day two we took a boat trip to some hot spots around the island including Halong Bay and Sung Sot Cave. Its the off season for travelers so besides the crew, there were only 4 other people on our trip so we got to spread out on the top deck or nap down below as we traveled from place to place. We made about 4 stops to kayak, swim, walk through the caves, and swim some more!
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Swhite's underwater camera is awesome but truth be told; looking cute underwater is tricky!
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Our boat was pretty darn slow all day but towards the end we probably could have floated faster so we weren't surprised when another boat came up to us and our guys tied us up to be towed. I don't think the boat was equipped for a tow however because the wood was cracking and snapping around the beam and we putted along back to the dock!
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After a couple of days in Cat Ba we headed back to Hanoi to catch the night train to Sapa. We arrived at the train station around 3 pm looking for a spot on that night's train and were told only the 3rd level berths in the "hard sleeper" car were available on the 10 pm train. We went for it and though the mattress was cushy enough, no complaints there we could have used a little more height!
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Sapa is an absolutely stunning place up in the mountains full or rice fields. You couldn't even count the shades of green on the landscapes and it smelled so fresh and wonderful! Swhite and I took a 2 hour motorcycle ride just to see the area and it was simply breathtaking!
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The little town of Sapa is pretty cute too! There are tons of hill tribe women constantly harassing you to take an overnight walking trek to their village with them which we had originally intended to do but after all the of bad luck we had been having lately we decided just to wander around on our own. We checked out the market, ate some tofu in tomato sauce with a lovely view of innards a mere 6 inches from our plates and got to sleep in a full on princess room with a balcony and everything!
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Unfortunately I got pretty sick and was out of commission half of the time we were there so we didn't get to do as much exploring as I would have liked but we were close enough to the end of our trip that we both welcomed the excuse to lay around in the room and watch TV online for a day. Swhite was good to me and went out and got me food and medicine so when I finally went downstairs around 6pm our friendly hostel owner was eager to give me a cup of the most disgusting tea ever that was supposed to make me feel better. It did not. And I wasn't expecting it to especially because we ate in his restaurant the night before and he kept giving us shots of some nasty liquor out of a bottle that had some kind of snake in it. Needless to say we have different tastes in beverages!

We splurged on the train ride back to Hanoi and got beds in a 4 berth car and "soft sleeper." The 9 hour ride went quickly and before we knew it we woke up in Hanoi around 5 am. As we wandered around Hoan Kiem Lake near Hanoi's Old Quarter trying to find a hotel we were pleasantly surprised to discover we were just in time for morning workouts!
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We had heard that Hanoi had some good shopping and since everything we buy needs to fit in our backpack and be carried around we had been patiently waiting to get rid of some scuzzy travel clothes so we would have room for some gifts and new treats. For the next two full days we combed the streets of Hanoi and shopped til we dropped! One day we realized we were walking for 10 hours!
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I always marvel at how differently other countries handle work zones or construction sites. In Korea, they seemed to have all of the same equipment yet you could walk right under the cranes or right along side the trucks, nothing roped off and definitely no hard hat signs and in Vietnam its even less invasive, I guess you'd say to pedestrians. These guys were working on some power lines but swung around on them so much you'd think they were monkey bars! No harness, no ladder just a nearby tree and an impressive vertical.
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After strategically spending the last of our Vietnamese dong on treats for the road, packing up our new treasures and doing our best to look presentable we headed to the airport for our 36 hour journey home. Swhite stopped in LA to hang with her sister and I am home safe with my family in Washington. Thanks for reading our blog and look forward to a new one coming next month from me as I head to Ecuador for 4 months to volunteer and work on my Spanish! Until our next adventure... ;)

Posted by 3ifBySEA 00:21 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

52 Hours on a Bus...Worth It!

by sarah

sunny 100 °F

Having heard nothing but good things about Luang Prabang (LP) we decided to make that our only stop in Laos. Almost everything we read and heard recommended giving yourself extra time there because most people end up staying way longer than they anticipated. Luang Prabang literally means "Royal Buddha Image (in the Dispelling Fear stance)". It is known for being a peaceful little town scattered with mountain views, wats (temples) and orange robed monks.

We decided that the 24 hour bus ride would be worth it. We’ve been on enough overnight bus rides to know one thing, it is ALWAYS more pleasant when there is a bathroom on board. With the heat and drinking an average of 2 liters of water a day it is always very stressful to sleep on a bus with no toilet because you have to make sure to wake up every time the bus stops (on the side of the road, mind you!) for a bathroom break, which usually only happens about twice a night. With this in mind we decided that we would be willing to pay a little extra to be on a bus with a toilet, especially since this would be our longest ride yet. We asked around at travel agents and found the ‘best deal’ and booked it. We were told that the ‘good’ buses only go certain days of the week, and one happened to go on Saturday, the day we needed.
The trip started off with a bang when we nearly missed our first mini bus since no one told us we were even taking a mini bus, let alone what time it would be there. Along the way we picked up far too many people and had to squish two to a seat. We then arrived at the bus station and the foreigners were herded around to the correct bus. Of course our first question was whether or not there was a toilet inside. Our guide just looked at me and laughed when I asked, and then pointed inside the bus terminal. All the other foreigners let out a sigh and ‘Nooooooo” at finding this out, and one girl even commented “But it’s SATURDAY!” But the guide still just looked very confused. The confusion continued when they were trying to figure out where everyone’s final destination was so they could put the bags in the correct spots. Half of the bags got put on top of the bus and covered with a tarp, then strapped on. However, it looked like this was their first time attempting to put anything up there and we were very happy that ours were not up there!

We wanted to confirm how long the ride would actually take, and which stop was first since everyone had been told conflicting things. The time that people had been told ranged from 20-31 hours, and everyone had been told that their city would be first! Here’s a map so you can get a perspective:
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We were leaving from Hanoi, Vietnam and our stop was LP, and other people were going to Vang Vien and Vientiane. There was a group of about 5 guys that worked on the bus and all of them gave us a different answer about where we were stopping first when we showed them the map.

Despite all the confusion in the beginning we crossed the border with relative ease and made it into Laos (still not knowing what the first stop would be, though!). I was very excited to fill up my last full page in my passport with my new visa, and to have exactly the right amount of spaces to make it home!

We made some fun Chilean friends on the bus and passed time teaching each other card games (we could only remember one though!). They were headed to Vang Vien, and 21 hours into the journey we stopped in the middle of a town and they were told to get out. They were rubbing it in our faces that they were the first to get off, but we saw them again in LP and they told us that they then ended up having to get their own transport from where they were and drive another 3 hours!

We were now even more confused about our route since Vang Vien was in the middle. We finally figured out that no one on the bus was actually going to Vientiane so LP would be the next stop. It’s only a few hundred miles from Vang Vien, but since we were weaving up a mountain to get there we were told it would take 7 more hours. Finally, 28 hours after we got on the bus, we arrived at our destination. There was only one tuk-tuk at the station so we all packed inside and headed to what we thought was the main part of town, only to realize that they driver took us to his friend’s hotel instead. Luckily it wasn't too far from all the other hostels, and we were able to quickly navigate our way there. There is an 11:30 curfew in place in LP so we frantically combed the night market to get some food before everything shut down, and then found a friendly little hostel to stay.

We quickly realized why everyone extends their time there. We spent the day getting a lay of the town on some bikes we rented from our guesthouse. It really is a beautiful place! It’s surrounded by green, luscious mountains, dotted with temples and monks and right on the Mekong River.
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In Vietnam the fad was those crazy printed pajamas, and here it seemed to be umbrellas! Most Asian cultures favor lighter skin, since darker skin comes from working outside. Whitening creams can be found in every store, and people will be in pants, long sleeves and a hat in 100 degree weather just to avoid getting a tan. It's crazy to think that in our culture people are willing to risk getting skin cancer just to get a tan, where other people will do anything they can to avoid it, including holding umbrellas while riding their motorbikes or walking around town.

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Even the monks do it!
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The Mekong (which comes from a mix of Thai and Laotian and means ‘Mother’) River is the main source of water for Lao, Vietnam and Cambodia.
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One of the main attractions in LP is a cave off the Mekong that is home to over 4,000 statues of Buddha that were placed there by worshipers. We decided to take a boat ride out there to have a look. It was a bit of a tricky start trying to get the boat angled correctly so we could get on, but the driver finally managed to line it up so we could crawl through another boat to get to ours.
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We arrived at the Pak Ou caves an hour later and there really were thousands and thousands of statues. The Mekong is worshiped for providing water to so many people, and locals make a pilgrimage there each year to bring more statues as a thank you. People have been brining their statues here for centuries.
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We tried to get a picture of each of the poses, but I'm not sure how successful we were.
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We took a two part tour and the second stop of the day was at the Kuang Si Waterfalls. They were very similar to the waterfalls we went to at Erawan National Park in Thailand, and equally as beautiful.
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They also have a bear sanctuary for rescued bears. There was a wall showing different types of bears in height order. Of course we thought it'd be fun for me to imitate all the bears :)
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The falls were a really fun spot to just relax, swim and explore. There was even a rope swing to go off of into the largest pool.
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The rest of our time in LP was just spent wandering this neat little place.
We explored lots of wats, and per usual the detail is insane!
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We walked up to a beautiful sunset wat with views of the city.
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These two adorable couples were there practicing their English and having the time of their lives!
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There is a nightly market that locals sell handicrafts and jewelry at. We wandered it each night, but both showed very good self control and only bought a few things!
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It's amazing to see all the children at the market. About every other woman selling things had at least one child with her and they were all so well behaved. They were either sleeping, eating peacefully or entertaining themselves (often just with a pair of chopsticks). There were a few lucky ones though that had some true entertainment!
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Part of the nightly market consisted of food stalls. There were four tables of buffet style vegetarian food. You got one plate and could fill it up as high as you could for 10,000 Kip, or about $1.25! Suffice to say we went back every night!
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For the meat eaters of the world there were tables full of pork...
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In case you can't tell, that is an entire pig, including its head and insides!

After days of wandering the temples, observing the monks and feasting on delicious Laotian food we decided it was time to head back to Vietnam. Of course the day we wanted to leave was the one day the bus didn't go! Since we had an extra day we decided to make it a spa day! We got hour long full body massages for about $4.50 and then treated ourselves to pedicures. We've been in to mixing and matching colors on our fingers and toes, so we both picked out two colors that we wanted. We both tried to explain to the girls what we wanted but were very unsuccessful. Gabrielle ended up with a very random assortment of colors, and I got one pink foot and one purple foot! The flight attendant on the way back to the US even pointed this out to me, and I just had to tell him that it was out of my control! That darn language barrier!

After our spa day we were ready for our 20+ hour bus ride back to Vietnam. It wasn't very crowded so we were able to have two beds to ourselves which was nice, but we happened to have the rudest drivers ever! They were clearly on some kind of power trip and just shouted 'NO!' whenever we asked questions so we just gave up. The trip also ended up being a lot longer because they decided to stop every ten minutes....to steal bananas from the jungle on the side of the road!!! AND, they then put them in the luggage area with our bags and everything got covered in ants! Luckily that was the worst of it.

Twenty-eight hours later and we were back in Vietnam. It was all worth it though because Luang Prabang truly is a beautiful place!

Posted by 3ifBySEA 14:22 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Sin-Chow, Vietnam

by sarah

sunny 100 °F

As much as I love Thailand and could have happily stayed there the entire duration of our trip, I was reminded why I love traveling so much as we headed to Vietnam. It was really fun to revisit places in Thailand, but as we ventured up north to new cities the real exploring began. It is such a rush to be somewhere completely new and to constantly be surprised by a different culture. We always do some research before going somewhere new, but it is still very different experiencing something first hand. As we were getting ready to go to Vietnam we were both genuinely giddy with excitement. The first time attempting to communicate with people in a new country, ordering food, asking for directions, or even smiling at the group of people wide-eyed at the site of you is always different everywhere we go, and I just can’t get enough of it!

Having seen many documentaries, movies and photos from Vietnam I thought I was relatively prepared for what it would look like. However, after just a few hours in Ho Chi Minh City (previously Saigon) I was overwhelmed by the craziness of it all. We arrived on a Tuesday night and it was instant chaos. We had to walk around a park to get to our hostel, and it was so alive! There were people of every age playing games, hanging out or taking a dance or aerobics class.

Vietnam is notorious for its motorbike packed streets, and HCMC is no exception. I would say it's easily 90% bikes and 10% other vehicles, and people drive in any direction they please. The stop lights are few and far between, and most people just use horns as they approach intersections. Standing at a corner attempting to cross the street can seem like quite a daunting task. We eventually felt pretty safe though because the bikes seem to move for us and are able to weave around the pedestrians very well.
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It's also very impressive the amount of people and items they are able to carry on their bikes. We've seen whole families and what appeared to be the entire contents of a house all on one bike!
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We quickly learned that Vietnam is a little more fast paced than Thailand, but equally as exciting and unique.
HCMC is known for its pagodas and temples so we spent most of our time there just wandering the city and taking in the sights. Again, it's so crazy to see how much time, effort and details are involved in the buildings that were made so long ago. I don't know if it is laziness, lack of funds, or that people aren't as willing to dedicate so much time to the construction of buildings, but there is nothing quite like an ancient Asian temple. Most people in Vietnam identify as Buddhist, but the temples and pagodas are a mix of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism so they are slightly different than others we've seen.
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The people are also very proud of their temples and there is constant restoration happening, and most donations go towards that.
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One of the first things we noticed about the locals here is that about 99% of the adult female population dresses in what appear to be matching pajama suits. They appear to be some sort of nylon material, and are all a loud floral print.

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We have no idea if it is just convenience or a fashion statement, but they are everywhere!

Our next stop after HCMC was Mui Ne, a coastal town a few hours north. Since we are here in the low season it was pretty deserted, and rained a lot, but we were still able to get in an adventure packed day and some good eats! Check out our delicious meal from Phat Hamburgers. The word is still out on exactly what ‘phat’ means here, but we’re pretty sure it’s not the same as the slang word we know from middle school that means Pretty Hot And Tempting!
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We started our adventure day by visiting some white sand dunes at sunrise,
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where we also saw a wedding photo shoot happen.
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Then we headed over to the orange sand dunes for some sand sledding. To be honest, I thought Vietnam was all hills, mountains and rice fields, and had no idea that these dunes even existed! It was the summer break while we were there so all of the 'guides' were kids between 5 and 14 years old. We had two of the teenagers helping us around and showing us how to slide. Part way through the trip one of them asked Gabrielle if we were going to tip at the end (which we had intended on doing) and she tried to explain to them that it wasn't polite to ask for it, and that more people would tip if they didn't ask. I don't think he got the message though because 2 minutes later he also asked me if I was going to tip them!
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The next stop of the day was a traditional fishing village. It was still early in the day so everyone was preparing their catches to bring to the market.
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They use these little, woven, circular basket boats to go between their fishing boats and the shore.
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The final stop was at a very shallow river with huge cliffs on one side that looks a lot like Moab, Utah, or something out of Jurassic Park! The water was extremely shallow and it was fun to feel like we were walking on water!
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Since the town was pretty empty and rainy we decided to leave that night and head to the beach town of Nha Trang. We had read about a vegetarian restaurant that was known for its cheap, delicious, ‘I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-meat’ food so we went on a mission to find it. When we got there this was the menu we were given:
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We both went for the 'plain cooked rice wich miscellaneous' and this is what came out:
IMG_5621.jpg and it was so good! I’d say it was even one of the best meals we've had!

We had also heard about a natural hot springs and mud bath so we spent a day there. There were small, communal mud baths that were refilled after each use.
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We then rinsed off and headed over to the natural hot tubs and pools. We shared our hot tub with a cute mom and her two little girls. There was a professional photographer walking around taking pictures that you could buy when you left. Of course the mom stopped the photographer and asked them to take a pro shot of the five of us with the youngest girl, who was still about 9, sitting on Gabrielle's lap. We're not sure if she bought it, but we were pretty curious what she would do with it if she did!
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Since we were in a beach town we decided to take a snorkel trip and see if it was a match for Thailand. Unfortunately it wasn't as far as what we were able to see, but the food was by far the best, and most, we've had on a boat trip. It turned out to be quite the feast!
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We also had a hilarious Vietnamese guide, who introduced himself as Bruce Lee and only responded to Bruce, and had obviously learned his English in Australia. It was a bit of a dead giveaway when his 'today' sounded a bit more like 'tuh-die'! He also struggled a little with the names. Gabrielle attempted to introduce herself as Brie, and there was a lot of back and forth of "Brie" 'Fwree?' "No, Brie" 'Fwree?' "No, Brie, Buh, Buh, Brie" 'Ohhhhh, Gee (like clarified butter)!' "Um...yeah." And there was a poor Scottish guy named Olly who he had a little trouble with and then Bruce attempted his Scottish accent by saying "I'm Sco-ish and I'm so impor-ant and I drink wa-er with my compu-er". He was quite the character!
Bruce is the one in the tiny shorts in the back right corner.
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We were also able to use my underwater camera again, which is always a good time!
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Next up: Hoi An. The 'old town', where we stayed, was situated right on the river. It was such a quaint little town and one of my favorites so far.
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The architecture was so different from any other place in Asia we've been. Almost all the buildings were a very colonial style and Gabrielle commented that it reminded her a lot of buildings from the Dominican Republic, and I can see how that would be more fitting of this style.
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Hoi An is known for its tailoring and custom pieces of clothing. This was immediately evident because all of these beautiful buildings were full of mannequins dressed in suits, dresses, coats and any other clothing item you can think of!
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There were also quite a few women riding around on bicycles that all asked the same stock questions, "Where are you from? How long have you been in Hoi An? Would you like to come see my shop? Good price for you!"
We had been planning on getting some clothes made anyway, so we finally went with one of these women and got some custom dresses made! They are very similar to styles you can get back home, but the whole process was really fun and it is neat knowing the dresses were made just for us.
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After that we continued up north to Hue, and ancient city that also has some remaining war tunnels. The next post will include that and more information about the war.

It’s been a while since we shared pictures, so here are a few of the gems we’ve collected along the way.

First real Vietnamese Pho at the world's tiniest table!
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Power lines for days!
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Birds for sale! We think you make a wish when you buy it and then set it free.
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Lots of the children here are very eager to say hello.
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Shout out to Steve...I hear you might call him lube-ner...
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Barbershop row!
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Posted by 3ifBySEA 10:10 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Vietnam the Forgiving

by gabrielle

97 °F

War is awful. The Vietnam or, American War as it is called here was awful and the impact it had and still has on the Vietnamese people and their country is truly immeasurable. As a 24 year old American girl who was not alive during the war and by no means is an expert on the topic I am choosing to blog about what we have seen, heard, done and felt related to the War as we have traveled through Vietnam.

First of all, Swhite and I were a tad worried about how we would be received in Vietnam once people found out we were American due to comments made by other travelers. Of course it's not right but people are constantly blamed, singled out or harassed for an association they have absolutely no control over and we had no idea if that could be the case for us in Vietnam. Granted, most of the people who told us to "be careful" or "watch out, they really hate Americans" were not American themselves. We were still a bit cautious so we looked up some blogs/forums from other travelers and didn't read about any hostility other American backpackers/travelers have experienced which made us feel much better. Vietnamese people are friendly and have greeted us cheerfully and treated no differently than any other travelers so far. Even so, I find myself holding my breath when any possible war reference comes up after it has become known that we are American. For example, I was on the back of a motorcycle on a 8 km ride and the driver was quite chatty and spoke excellent English. He asked me where I was from and I told him then I asked him where he learned to speak English so well and he said, "from my Australian mommy." I asked him if he lived in Australia and he said, "No, my parents died in the American War and I was put in an orphanage. But I was very lucky to get a second mom to adopt me." He then continued on to say how he really wished he had an American accent instead of an Australian one when he speaks English so he is going to keep working at it. I found that to be amazing. No hate or blame for all that happened because of MY country and MY government less than 50 years ago. Somehow the Vietnamese people have learned to forgive much quicker than other nations/cultures seem to, including my own. The Vietnamese people seem to truly understand the phrase, "Only lay blame where blame is due." much better than others and therefore do not punish me for the mistakes the US Government made years before. All of this instantly reminds me of how American people and the US Government have treated people of middle eastern decent after 911. We could learn a lot from the Vietnamese people.

We flew into Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) from Bangkok and visited the War Remnants Museum our second day. The museum was split into 6 themes spanning three floors. The themes were, Historical Truths, Requiem- collection of war documentary photos, Imprisonments Conditions, Aggressive War Crimes, The World People in Support of Vietnam's Resistance and a Children's Education room.
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The main entrance had exhibit for The World People in Support of Vietnam's Resistance and we were shocked at how widespread the protests were. It seemed as if the exhibit had pictures or examples of protests from EVERY corner of the world. How could the war have raged on for 20 years?

The exhibit started like this:
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Here are some examples in support of the resistance efforts around the world:
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Newspapers clippings about the "Pilot Who Said 'No'":
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An excerpt from the Minutes of a Congress meeting in 1969 by Rep. William Clay:
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An excerpt from a declaration signed by 1,000 American university professors and lecturers:
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As we worked our way upstairs to the Imprisonment Conditions and Aggressive War Crimes exhibits what we saw and read made us sick to our stomachs. The shame, sadness and guilt I felt walking through these exhibits was almost unbearable. Although I am fully aware it's misplaced, I cannot separate the fact that Americans did this damage and I am American too. I can't possibly say enough great things about the USA and being American and how fortunate I feel all of the time but it's very hard to feel that same pride when reading quotes like this:
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And then to see a quote from former Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara years later like this:
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If you can't read it it says, "Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why."

We saw many pictures like these:
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And spent time trying to comprehend statistics like these:
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One of the most heartbreaking exhibits of all was the one about Agent Orange in the Historical Truths section. How could this have possibly happened? How could someone approve a strategy like this? We learned that the Viet Cong in the South worked and lived as farmers so they blended in and no one could identify who they were but it just doesn't make sense that spraying such a dangerous chemical over everything would be a solution. I just don't understand. Even worse, we read information about how the chemical plants who provided Agent Orange claimed they were not liable for the effects of the chemical and refused to provide compensation to the Vietnamese people. There was also a letter written to Obama in 2009 from a young Vietnamese woman affected by Agent Orange congratulating Obama for having two healthy daughters with endless opportunities to be the best they can be and asked him to help the children of Vietnam affected so severely by the lasting impact of the war to be afforded the same opportunities. I haven't done my research to find out how Obama responded but a part of me feels like nothing would ever be enough.

Here is the distribution of the chemical and the effects on the land:
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But the most difficult to look at and incomprehensible were the effects on people's bodies and the bodies of the innocent children born to exposed parents.
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The war documentary photos were pretty incredible as well. It's hard to imagine someone taking pictures during a war but they are so powerful.
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Swhite and I left the museum feeling sad and disgusted and speechless. Swhite put it perfectly when she finally said, "I feel like I can't complain about anything ever again."

As we made our way north to various other cities along the coast we stopped in Hue to see the Demilitarized Zone and civilian tunnels. We had a great guide who spoke English really well and was a wealth of knowledge. She told us that the US government along with three other countries funds a program on TV that educates locals on how to be safe in areas with landmines or bombs that could still explode. These programs air regularly along with information at the schools to help people become aware. I am unsure of how much the US is doing or not doing to help get Vietnam on their feet again. Effort is effort but like I said before, it just seems like nothing will ever be enough.

We visited some of the civilian tunnels that whole villages would hide in to protect themselves from bombs for SIX years. Since the War was fought on land in the south and by air in the north, the people were relatively safe in the tunnels because the entrances were covered by trees and not visible from the air. Our guide said no one ever stayed underground for more than 5 days/5 nights at a time but we were ready to get out of there after 10 minutes!

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Here is the room size that is supposed to house families of 4 people:
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17 babies were born in this tunnel over the 6 year period. Can you imagine??
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At the museum we learned that people tried to make life as normal possible down there. We saw pictures of kids in school, town meetings and even musical performances.

The rest of the afternoon we visited the head of the Ho Chi Minh trail, a small military cemetery for the North Vietnamese soldiers where almost all of the headstones read, "unknown" and a mountain top US base with lots of conflicting information. We read a few guestbook entries and many US veterans who had visited wrote about how the museum at the base was not depicting true information about particular battles or events. No one will ever know I guess except the people who fought. It was awful to read how many US veterans say they were sent on a suicide mission and didn't even know what they were fighting for and used terms like "sacrificed by our own government." One summed it up by saying, "both sides fought with courage and bravery" and some focused on how much they like visiting and how wonderful the Vietnamese people are. The entries were quite varied and we didn't really know what to make of them.

I am glad we visited the museums and sites and learned more about the war but I cannot even begin to explain how shocked and saddened I was to learn all of the things I learned. Like I said in the beginning, war is awful.
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Posted by 3ifBySEA 10:09 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Goodbye...for now!

by gabrielle

sunny 100 °F

Biggest difference between Thailand this time and Thailand last time: the crowd. When we came in 2010 with Melanie we were in a sea of true “backpackers.” Besides physically carrying a big REI style backpack I would describe the outward appearance of a "backpacker" as someone between 25 and 35 years old, long hair/un shaven, dirty-ish, deeply tanned, wearing clothes purchased from street vendors in other developing countries, natural, quiet, curious and “chill.” As Swhite talked about in the last post, we started our trip on the islands in the south, in places we had already been and the crowd was totally and unexpectedly, different. This time around most of the people we met were between 18 and 24, clean, made up, dressed up, sunburnt, louder, less courteous of the locals, borderline rude and even had rolling suitcases. So what’s the deal? Swhite and I talked about this a lot because it resulted in such a different vibe down on the islands and we think it must be seasonal; that or, the type of people who are attracted to Thailand have completely changed. Late April-Early May is when many of the university students finish for the summer, have time to kill and are ready to party and vacation on a beach somewhere. Last time we were in Thailand is was late October and November when most people would be settled into their school year or have real jobs which is where the “backpacker” crowd comes in. If you don’t have something to get back to in the fall, then you really are setting up to travel for awhile and "backpack." In case you are curious where we fit in… I like to think our behavior was pretty compliant with the “backpackers”, we also enjoy a good party but have other objectives and our attire placed us somewhere in between. Another fun, noticeable difference was that lots of locals were carrying around bird cages, yes with birds in them everywhere! We saw countless people with birdcages hanging off the awnings of their shops as well as tons being transported by motorbike. You’ll just have to take our word for it though because we didn’t get any pics!

When you’re traveling back to somewhere you’ve been before you know your way around a little bit, you know where to find the cheapest pad thai or the best sandwich, know how much a taxi should cost for a given distance and know where the nearest 7-11 is to break a big bank note because nobody ever has change. As repeat Thailand travelers this was all very helpful to us as we went back to four places we had been to before, especially because we didn’t have to waste any time figuring things out when Jillian came to meet us. But, the true joy of traveling as Swhite and I remembered as we flew up north to Chiang Mai and Lampang is not knowing anything, being thrown off, amused and/or pleasantly surprised and getting to figure things out. I especially like all the non verbal or sound effect related communication. For example, we needed to find a hospital to get some meds but couldn't communicate with the driver so I made a hissing sound (poor choice, I know) and pretended to give myself a shot and voila! off to the hospital we went! A couple of days later we needed to buy bug spray and couldn't find it so I buzzed a bit (another odd choice) then pretended to get bit and voila! OFF Mosquito Repellent! Our last day we needed to get the train station and the driver was not understanding Swhite so I said, "Try the choo-choo arm thing!" and sure enough, we made it to the train station! Gotta love language barriers, right? You get to bust out some killer moves!

Chiang Mai is an inland city in northern Thailand known for its cooking classes, jungle treks, elephant rides and hill tribe culture. If you’re trying to picture the traveler vibe it’s much more “backpacker” and very little “vacationer” aside from older European couples on short trips. Food is cheaper, you don’t need to haggle as much since there aren’t as many foreigners and it’s bloody hot! Our first day we took a cooking class at a place called Baan Thai which means “Thai House” and our main teacher was a ladyboy (natural-born man who dresses, acts, and lives (very convincingly I might add) as a woman for various reasons) named Benz. After seeing so many ladyboys and being unsure of the original gender of some I figured out the feet are often a dead give-a-way. Benz was wearing shoes all day and I didn’t see her feet until we were leaving and I must say I had been fooled! Anyway, we started the day by Benz taking us to the market and explaining all the different kinds of ingredients would we need for our dishes that would likely be unfamiliar to us as many were special to Thailand and Thai cooking.
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We got to choose one appetizer, one curry, one main dish, one soup and one dessert and each had our own wok or burner to use for each dish. It was a very well done course and the food was delicious! We were given a cookbook which even includes substitutions for the crazy versions of eggplant and such so we will be able to recreate the tastiness back home. I can’t wait to try them out!
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At one point (around when the pic below was taken) Benz seemed pretty darn amused by how sweaty we were. She asked me why I sweat and if it wasn't hot in our country. I didn't really have a reply but it was a million degrees, we were mostly cooking outside and there were flames involved so I feel I was allowed to be a bit sweaty!
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Day two in Chiang Mai was a day trip up further north to ride some elephants along with various other activities. We piled into a mini bus with two young Canadian couples, one young Korean girl and three middle aged fellas from Singapore. First stop: the Orchid Farm and Butterfly house.
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We then drove up to an elephant camp for a half hour ride where we fed the elephants bananas. We think our elephant was named Jahmo but it's hard to say. Our driver seemed pretty darn comfortable sitting on poor Jahmo's head. He also played pop music on speaker from his cell phone the whole ride. I like to think Jahmo liked it too!
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After the elephant ride we sat and waited for about 20 minutes for our bamboo raft operators to arrive. We were sitting on some benches on the other side of the river from the elephants with just one elephant chained up next to us looking pretty darn miserable. I was already nervous that the elephants would be mistreated because I had heard so many sad stories from other travelers but felt okay about our set up until seeing this poor, lonely guy. We asked our guide what the deal was and he said, "He is a crazy elephant!" As we asked for more details we found out that this elephant had killed a person 2 years ago and was only being kept around for breeding purposes. Apparently only one guy can handle him so the elephant stays chained up across the river until the one guy comes and takes him to bathe and get water or breed I guess. One of the Canadians asked why he couldn't just be set free and the guide said "no way, he's way too dangerous for that." It's odd to think about but this elephant is essentially in prison for murder. Thinking about it that way made it seem slightly more okay but then again, who knows what the circumstances were of the death and who are we as humans to decide the poor things fate? Needless to say, I felt very bad for the elephant imprisoned and have no idea what an appropriate course of action would be with him.

Okay so now we are on to the bamboo raft portion of the day... Huge spider, muddy river with elephant poop floating by and a very distracted guide!
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After a nice lunch we took a one hour trek/hike to a nearby waterfall. The Canadians went zip-lining, and the Singaporean fellas opted for the mini bus route so Swhite and I trekked with a friendly old guide and the young Korean girl from Seoul. It was fun to talk to a Korean girl our age who was so interested in independent travel and especially that her family was okay with it. She has been traveling alone for almost 6 moths and wants to travel back to India to open a restaurant because she says they need Korean speaking restaurant owners. Her perspectives were very different from the young Korean girls' we met while living in Seoul and it was fun to talk to her.
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After the rest of the group reconvened at the waterfall we headed up river for our last stop: white water rafting. Our group of 10 was split into two rafts of 5 people. Swhite and I lucked out and were assigned to a raft with the three flamboyant and fun fellas from Singapore. The water level wasn't so high and we got stuck on a rock and were instructed to all "bounce" to get off of it. The Singporeans couldn't handle this task and were giggling up a storm and chanting, "Shake it, shake it! Bounce bounce! Shakey, shakey, bounce, bounce!" Then after a few rapids the adrenaline must have really been pumping because two of them started calling the five of us, "The Singapore Spice Girls" and even singing a few bars of the song "Wannabe." Our little Thai guide didn't seem so amused by all the energy especially because it definitely wasn't used to paddle and asked one of the guys to switch places with Swhite so she was on the same side as me. He then asked the two guys on the side alone if they could swim and they nodded yes with a hint of confusion. Before we knew it we zipped down a series of rapids and bounced hard off a rock tossing both of our singers overboard! The two were pretty shaken up but were good sports about it in the end and one just kept saying to the guide, "Okay okay but now you owe me a beer!" and then they all started giggling again.
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We rented bikes our last day in Chiang Mai and rode all over town trying to locate a restaurant that advertised avocado sandwiches we had seen from a bus earlier. We didn't find the restaurant but saw some gorgeous temples and found a few other tasty treats!
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After Chiang Mai we traveled two hours south by bus to a town called Lampang. We had heard Lampang was a smaller version of Chiang Mai also with lovely temples and bike-able roads. We only stayed two nights but Lampang was an absolute ghost town! The locals definitely didn't see foreigners very often because we received countless "hellos" from the brave souls willing to talk to us followed by insane fits of giggling and we haven't been blatantly stared at so bad since India. When we walked around the night market this man got our attention and pointed to another blond white person and excitedly said, "Ooooh, same same! Like you!" It's funny how that's not offensive at all here. Maybe because I KNOW they don't mean any harm by it and to them, we are "same same" so who could blame them? Anyway those couple of days were spent riding bikes around town and sampling odd new snacks at the night market and we had fun!
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From Lampang we headed to Bangkok to catch our flight on a miserably hot 12 hour train ride. Word to the wise: forget budget traveling, pay the $6 more for air conditioning! We met up with our friend we met on the islands briefly in Bangkok and then headed off to the airport to fly to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Goodbye for now, Thailand! Thanks for living up to your wonderfulness the second time around and know we'll be back again someday!
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Posted by 3ifBySEA 07:59 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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