Friday, August 26, 2011

Intention vs Reality

My intention was to return from my Vietnam/Cambodia/Sumatra holiday and start blogging again. I'd have two weeks to write about all those adventures before I left for Borneo.  I'm leaving today.  If you've seen the map of my trip, I haven't finished blogging about that trip.

Instead I spent nearly every day in the past two weeks meeting my friends for a variety of catch-ups, dinners, birthday events and near dance-a-thons.  I basically packed as much as possible into these past two weeks. 

I leave in a few short hours to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, in the Malaysian part of the island of Borneo. Here's a map for the geographically challenged amongst you. You can also switch over to a map view and see where Brunei is.  I'm going to try to pop over for a day because how often does one get to go to a sultanate?

My good friend Jen is going with me.  She's the person I've known the longest in Indonesia.  We are thick as thieves and it promises to be an epic trip. 

When I return there will be blogs on Sai Gon, the Mekong Delta, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and a couple from this Borneo trip. That should give you something to look forward to.  Take care in the meantime.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Da Lat

Da Lat is off the coast and makes a good stopping point between Hoi An and Sai Gon.  If (hopefully when) I go back I'd like to do a motorcycle tour between Da Lat and Sai Gon as well as between Da Lat and Nha Trang. The town itself if quite small and quaint.  The buildings are packed together but still manage to be pretty. 
Da Lat is a pretty little town in the highlands. 
We arrived in the rain, and that was the uniting theme of our two days there.  The food was good, the walks were nice.  We didn't meet many people aside from two couple catching the same bus out as we were. Most The one full day we spent in town was spent on a tour.  The "things to see" were in the surrounding area and this was the easiest way to see them . The group was three French girls who kept to themselves, a German couple and a Belgian couple who were nice, four Vietnamese who I think were a mother and father with their grown daughter and her husband and finally Danielle and I.

Driving around for a day tour provided lots of photo ops.
The first stop was a flower farm with beautiful gerbera daisies, giant lilies and roses.  I complimented the younger Vietnamese woman on our tour about her earrings and she insisted I take them saying "very cheap, handmade!"  The royal blue flowers have become some of my favorite earrings.

Next was a coffee plantation, fruit farm, and cricket farm.  At the cricket farm we were shown the bins the little buggers were raised in and then offered a fried sample.  They were really good! Fried with oil, and scallions, they'd make great bar food.  The Vietnamese family got a kick out of the fact that I liked them and kept spearing new ones on toothpicks, dipping them in chili sauce (which wasn't as nice) and handing them to me while taking photos. Entertaining them was payback I suppose.  I really didn't mind.
Yum! I did find I like the light brown ones a little better.
Immediately after the crickets was a rice whiskey distillery.  Those two should have been side by side.  The first same was nice and as about 20 or 30% alcohol.  Then for the few of us who lingered and asked questions there was a second sample offered.  That one would have taken the paint off the walls.

Next was a waterfall.  There's a cute elephant statue at the top. Then the powerful falls.  All the water we saw was a mucky, brackish brown.  I lead the charge down near the bottom where the spray made everything look mystical and shiny.
Waterfall.  The scramble to the bottom was worth it.  The mermaid was after the waterfall on the way to the temple next door.
The second to last stop was Crazy House.  It was designed designed by a Vietnamese woman trained in design in Russia and seemingly styled after Gaudi's work in Barcelona.  I couldn't help but recall the "melting" buildings on Las Ramblas.  It's still under construction and I walked through an area with all kinds of exposed rebar and such which would never be permitted in the US. It was like a jungle gym for kids as most of the paths were small and winding.  There were lots of stairs and ladders, each leading to something new and different.  The rooms each had an animal theme.  You can stay there as it is a hotel, but the rooms are tiny and relatively expensive ($100+) and I'd imagine the rules about returning to your room are rather strict as there are people walking about and peering in it all day.
Crazy House
The last stop before being dropped at the market was an embroidery gallery.  It was a very competitive school that trains the embroiderers.  The XO organization has orphanages/school in many cities around Vietnam and even a few other countries.  The work was incredible and it was easy to forget you were looking at thread and not paint. Another bus took us on into Sia Gon, and that one was THE WORST bus of the trip.

Hoi An

Hoi An is a small town that wasn't originally on my itinerary. I added it when I heard rave reviews from other travelers in Ha Noi. I'm glad I didn't miss it.
On the bike ride to the beach.  The green was so bright as to be electric.
It's a small town, there are really just two main streets that are filled with restaurants and tailor shops.  It's a common stop over between Nha Trang and Hue. We stayed at Green Fields which was a good place to be.  There were plenty of other travelers, it was new and sort of median between the town and the beach. After checking in we went back to the hostel and who did I see through the restaurant by the pool?  Neil!!  The sexy beast was back!  We had a catch up and some fun that night.
The beaches there are really lovely though the sand heats up to a point that I swear should make glass.  The sand is soft and pale.  The ocean is warm as bath water and a beautiful spectrum of blues and teals.  You can walk out for half a mile before it drops off and you're shoulder deep.  The soft rustling of palm trees put me to sleep both days. There wasn't too much trash and the vendors weren't too pesky. We rented bikes to ride out there.  A 25 minute bike ride would have been a long enough walk to make me cranky. 
Beach time
I could hardly drag myself from the water.
The reason most people go to Hoi An is for the tailoring.  In all I had two going out dresses, two causal cotton dresses, a school appropriate skirt and a pair of pants made.  The single most expensive item was a $32 dress.  I couldn't even get one off the rack for that in the States. After the initial measurements were taken, we went back for one or two fittings.  Most of mine fit at the first fitting but one dress had to be taken in and wasn't a problem. Danielle had a wool jacket made that I was very envious of but I couldn't rationalize it since I live in an equatorial country. Same goes for her nearly knee high boots.
Danielle getting measured for a dress.

They also make shoes there. three pairs of leather sandals and one pair of leather heels made.  The heels proved slightly problematic.  I'm hoping the leather will stretch a bit.  The sandals have definitely been integrated into rotation and can be resoled here if necessary since I seem to much harder on shoes here.

Definitely worth the stop and I could have happily lazed around for days on the beach but time was a-wastin'. at the end of our third day there we caught a night bus to Da Lat via Nah Trang.  Bus one to Nha Trang was eleven hours and I slept ten of them.  I was in a lower "bunk" towards the back and crashed out. These buses are set up in three columns of about eight to ten seats each in an upper and lower bunk. The seats are sort of like the pool side loungers that allow you to increase or decrease the angle of incline on the chair back.
Down the bus aisle.  Lower bunk towards the back, but not the very back, was a great place to sleep. Half a benedryl didn't hurt either.

My last look at Hoi An before waking up in Nha Trang.
An hour in Nha Trang allowed for breakfast.  It's a pity we didn't get to stay there.  It's known for it's beaches but another time.
Breakfast in Nha Trang.  They were made in a clay frame, with a thin dough of rice flour, coconut milk and then egg in the middle. I don't know what they were called but they were very yummy.

Onward for another six or seven hours to Da Lat, where we arrived in the rain.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Da Nang

Enjoying our flight.
For the sake of time, Danielle and I took a plane to Da Nang.  The night trains were booked three days out and the bus was going to be 21 hours. Pass. Vietnam Airlines was good.  Other than a slow moving check in line, it was a breeze.  We got water on the flight (take THAT AirAsia) and the bags were off in record time.

Detritus from our meal.

The first hostel was full.  Thanks to a diligent taxi driver, we got another one.  Private room on the riverfront.  We went out to see what was around about 10:30pm. It wasn't long before we ended up at a food stall.  I use the term for lack of another.  There were wide sidewalks bordering the river and a family had set up with lots of plastic chairs and tiny tables, a cook top and a pushcart. The clams were the best I've had-not salty, fresh, fat, and yummy.  The beers were plentiful but warm, so we were given ice in the glasses.

Can you guess which one is Mr. Le?
Mr. Le lives in Sydney but was visiting.  He wanted to talk.  He was in his late 60's at least and dressed in all white pajamas.  It wasn't long before Mr. Lam and Mr. Ha, his nephews in their forties, joined us.  It was hysterical.  We drank about 38 beers between us, all with ice in little glasses. We left about midnight having paid for the meal and them some but with smiles on our faces.

There's not a lot IN Da Nang.  I do want to go back to see the US military installations and VC tunnels nearby though. We walked around and found a Padang-esque breakfast of rice, veggies, pork chops and fish. After that the majority of our day was spent looking for a bus stop. The city bus to Hoi An was forty minutes and cost about $1.50. The scenery was nice along the way but the horn was deafening.  I sat right behind the driver as it was the only seat available.  I quickly figured out why.
View of the river from the hotel balcony.

Ha Noi

This is going to be tough.  I need to keep it short enough that you don't all nod off but long enough to include the important stuff with pictures.  The only way to go is to jump in, so . . .

I arrived to Ha Noi a day later than I'd planned after the frustrations in Kuala Lumpur with my visa.I only stayed one night because I immediately booked a Ha Long Bay tour for three days and two nights. Before I left I had a great meal accidentally.  It was my first in Viet Nam, on a street corner, served by three old women who asked me questions in Vietnamese and I just nodded to all of them.  I think it was Bun Cha and it because my favorite dish there.
The small bowl had cool broth, two different kinds of pork and cukes in it.  The plate was bean sprouts, mint, basil, lettuce and a couple other leafy greens. Rice noodles, thicker than vermicelli but thinner than Pho, chilies and vinegar rounded out the necessary ingredients.My goal to eat pork everyday and return to Indonesia sweating it started with this.

I was last to be picked up for the tour and sat in the back with the two other Americans, Cham and Scot. It was, what proved to be, a good combo of couple and singles.  I got on especially well with Liliana from Argentina, aka Tango, Elin from Iceland, aka Sharky, Cham from Philly, aka Rooms, and Daniel form Germany. Scot was tolerable and the two Irish couples were a good laugh.
A boat nearly identical to ours, through the pouring rain.
It rained most of the trip but we had a hoot anyway.  Day one was the bus to the boat, a ride out into the bay, checking out a limestone cave used for protection during the war, kayaking (Cham and I went the farthest and the fastest!), swimming and jumping from the boat, until some jellyfish showed up, and and evening ending karaoke/squid fishing session.
Cham keeping a watchful eye for squid. We decided it was just a ploy to keep up busy since the hooks weren't even baited.
Most of the group was in the boat crooning along to lots of horrible renditions of 80's pop songs. The cool kids  (Rooms, Sharky, Tango, Daniel, Scot, Lillian) were at the back of the boat with a light and some bamboo poles for squid fishing.  It was wholly unsuccessful but a little vodka and great company made it enjoyable all the same.
View from the top of the mountain at Cat Ba

Neil, Nikki and Scot
Day two was Cat Ba island. The hike was much much harder than anticipated and the muddy conditions only worsened things.  Tango had to take our guides shoes to wear.  I met Neil on the climb up.  He is Kiwi, living in Oz, a tattoo artists and a reoccurring party in my trip.  He was on another tour that would merge with ours. We started BS'in on the way up and never quit.  The view from the top would be stunning on a clear day, which was not our luck.  We all stayed in Cat Ba city that night.  The food was ok, but it was the same stuff all trip.  Drinks after dinner included an Irishman moonwalking down the street, a streetside, plastic table side massage for another Irishman and lots of beer.

We had a great third day on the boat back to Halong city for lunch and then into Ha Noi.  We arranged a meet up and I'd see all of the aforementioned folks before leaving Ha Noi.  Dinner and drinks that same night with Neil, Nikki and Scot were a riot.
This is one side of beer corner.  The woman in the middle was there "working" every night though I never saw her leave with anyone.  Most of the bar was treated to views of her panties and her glares.
We met Coco, a barmaid at a bia hoi stand, who loved me and I'd be quite chummy with.  She'd just been dumped by her American boyfriend and after I helped her use both 'disappointed' and 'stupid' in text messages, we were gold. As a result of the break up, she was taking her anger out on any man in the vicinity. We went to her other bar that night, Hair of the Dog club. I saw her the next four or five nights in a row.

Other sights from Ha Noi were the Hanoi Hilton, a prisoner of war detention center which is one story, still surrounded by barbed wire and immediately next to a fifty-story five-star hotel. 
The Army Museum which, through the propaganda, does make a sobering case for the damage done to the country and it's people by the French and Americans during successive military actions.
Lots of temples, notably the Temple of Literature which was a nice walk around.
Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum.  Much in the style of Lenin, Stalin and Mao, he was preserved for all of eternity against his wish to be cremated.  There are posters, pictures, statues and plaques of him all over town.  I know Communist countries all have "Big Brother" but he really is everywhere.

Danielle arrived after Ha Long Bay and was happily led around while she adjusted to the jet lag and the culture shock.  We had She and I would travel the next two and a half weeks together.  I spent a week total in Ha Noi and Ha Long.  By the end other tourists were stopping me (twice in the same day) for directions.  I left Ha Noi even happier to be in Viet Nam than I imagined.

A last note on Ha Noi.  I stumbled on a bargain of a hostel.  May de Ville.  They have a hostel and a hotel.  It was only open two weeks when I was there.  Brand new, built to be a hotel and then changed to a hostel.  $6 for 6 bed dorms that were never full.  New beds, fantastic if tiny showers and full breakfast included.  Not tea and toast but eggs and omelets to order, bacon, sausage, fruit, fried noodles and rice, breads, juice, coffee, tea, the works. Todd, the gm, is Canadian and goes out of his way to help, as do all the front desk staff. Their prices might jump as they get more popular but get there before the secret's out.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

I've returned . . .

only to depart again on Saturday. I'm know, I'm sorry about my blog but I don't feel too guilty as it means I get to leave Jakarta again.

The most striking result of being away for a full month is the horror at coming back. It was fantastic to see my friends upon my return, especially "the girls". I was smart in coming back several days before I was due in to work as I was a disaster (more to follow on that).  Jakarta remains unchanged.  The traffic is a total catastrophuck and current construction projects are still in the works, the bugs are out in force, the pollution is worse than I remembered and Jakarta is, what I now officially deem, a cultural wasteland. Both Vietnam and Cambodia were filled with wide, smooth sidewalks, parks and green spaces, museums, theaters, historical sites.  There was traffic and I know Danielle, my traveling buddy, was surprised by the amount and fervor of it, but it was comparatively light. Her observations about the trash/pollution were about the same.  She noted how bad it was, and all I could think was that it wasn't even close to as bad as Jakarta.

It always hard to return from vacation to the routine.  The same old place, same work, same students (as my school year runs February to December, not August to July like a normal school), same activities, same options, etc. Part of my love for travel is the novelty.  Seeing new things, trying different foods, making yourself go out and be involved in a new city day after day. I would imagine avid travelers all find that part of the infectiousness of the travel bug's bite.

My general impressions of the trip:
I love Viet Nam, short of Saigon. I also loved Phnom Pehn and I'm hoping to get back to both shortly.

I loved the food in Viet Nam.  It was fresh and full of veggies, unlike fried and perpetually chili covered Indonesian food. The variety wasn't huge but I could've eaten the same two or three things everyday. You don't have to be careful of coffee grounds in your cuppa java. The beer was light and basic, but also very cheap. There's also bia hoi - fresh beer.  It's made daily without preservatives and each batch tastes a little different. A deal at $0.25 per pint.

The people were great in Viet Nam and Cambodia.  There were three distinct groups I met: travelers, locals and expats.  Nearly everyone was helpful, some exceedingly so.  The hostel staff in Ha Noi went above and beyond, other travelers were interesting and friendly, even in Cambodia where I found people less friendly they were still very helpful. I put on my taxi driver/ojek man blinders and wasn't harassed excessively.  I even got relatively lucky with taxis.

The scenery was incredible in Viet Nam, Cambodia and Sumatra.  In my short time I saw big cities, small towns, villages, beach, inland, deltas, riverfronts and highlands. Everything was such a lush green that the camera couldn't accurately portray the vivid color. The blue waters were like an exquisite bath. Clouds mysteriously rolled over the tops of mountains, though they were much too short to be considered so by my American standard. There was a little pollution on land, air and sea, but not a distracting amount.

Travel in other Asian countries is much easier than in Indonesia.  Maybe because of the sheer number of tourists that are hitting continental SE Asia and have been for over a decade, the transportation options are plentiful, easy to navigate (haha), and cheap.  I know Indonesia is an archipelago which presents unique issues of passing from island to island, but I can't give them a pass even with a handicap.  Day buses, night buses, mini buses, trains, night trains, planes, cars, motorbikes, taxis, and rental cars. All can be arranged on short notice and with little English.  The longest ride I took was an eleven hour sleeping bus from Hoi An to Nha Trang.  I slept ten hours of it. The options make it easy to go see something else, change cities/countries, and stay on budget. If you can't be asked to sort it out yourself there are tons of tour companies. Your only decision is when and where to go, they'll sort the rest.

I was ok traveling with someone. Historically, I travel alone.  Often friends want to go but can't. I genuinely like traveling alone.  I'm not intimidated by other people or by my own company. I was actually worried about being with someone else so many consecutive days.  two and a half weeks with Danielle and five days with a guide of my thirty total days didn't leave many for me alone. All considered, it was a fair match with Danielle.  We had a few very mild rough days but I have no major complaints. We didn't kill or abandon each other before her departure. Nor did I dismember my Indonesian guide on Sumatra.  I was very happy to have a couple of days to myself when I got back though.

Enough for today.  I'll do my best to keep these blogs from running away from me in length.  I'll try to arrange my blogs by city and get nearly caught up before I go if possible. Hope you've all been well and flourished in my absence.