Frenemies right from the start! Hoi An, Vietnam

There are some things that I began to welcome while traveling and then there are things that if they never happened again, EVER, I would be ok with. Beautiful towns like Hoi An don’t come along that often, but what happened in Hoi An can stay in Hoi An as far as I’m concerned.

This is how it began….

Me: Why is the bus stopped already

Celine: I do not know, maybe we need gas

Me: But, we just left – what is the driver looking at?

Yes, this was the start to a long, long night on our way to Hoi An, Vietnam. Our bus stopped before I even settled into my reclining window seat. It wasn’t gas we needed but to fix the engine. After several people climbed under and around the bus,  some crazy dancing in the gas station and some interesting snacks we were on our way. Eight hours, two sleeping pills and no air-conditioning later we stopped, again, only to find a flat tire. In hindsight, when we finally arrived in Hoi An we probably should have just continued to the next city but we had heard such great things that we decided to check-in and see the town anyway.

I arrived to the quaint little town with nothing more then a desire to have something special made. This town is known for making not just custom clothes, but shoes, bathing suits, suit suits and whatever else can be stitched together with a needle and thread. It had been months since I’d worn anything aside from the few things in my small little bag and frankly I wasn’t that concerned. I’ve never been a clothes whore, in fact a friend once tried to get me on the show “what not to wear”.  Anyway, I really wanted to have a cobalt blue dress made, but little did I know that the stress of designing a dress and actually picking fabric would be overwhelming. Long story short – I did not come away with a cobalt blue dress but something with orange and animal print. Celine on the other hand had grand plans. I will spare the agonizing details of how she had several things made, none of which she really liked, none of which came out how she expected and how she was ultimately yelled at and thrown from a store with just a paid receipt in hand.

One of the few towns in Vietnam that “we” did not destroy during the war, Hoi An has several preserved streets fitted to appeal to le gran touriste. Filled with said tailors, jewelry shops, lanterns shops and pretty much any other little ticky tacky knick knack that one would want to stuff into their bag and schlep home to remind them of their time in Nam. I was more interested in capturing the beauty of the city, I spent the early morning hours wandering the streets taking in the sights while the locals went about their morning business and just before the hoards of khaki shorts and sneakers arrived. Celine and I dined on some of the most delicious food I’ve had, white rose (banh bao vac), this was not a place for ‘street eats’ but a town to linger and be seen twirling chopsticks and sipping on local beers.

We were welcomed by a family onto their restaurant boat/home and enjoyed their fresh noodles, fresh beer and marveled at the inquisitive little girl. She couldn’t have been more than 6, but she was fearless. I actually let her run around with my small camera so she could practice taking photos, she hopped right off the boat and snapped pictures of her landlubbing friends, storefronts and of course us. I envisioned her dropping my camera into the water or someone snatching it from her tiny hands but somehow none of that seemed to bother me because watching her in the moment was fantastic. Nice experiences with the locals like this were in direct competition with a woman screaming at Celine and I to leave her restaurant after we told some would-be patrons that the 2 for 1 mojitos we had just ordered tasted nothing like mojitos.

To add insult to injury there was the ATM fiasco. Celine left on an earlier bus, she had had enough of Hoi An. She left me with a few Dong (the Vietnam currency – get your mind out of the gutter) to pay the bill but I needed a few more bones I mean Dong to make up the balance. ATM number 1 – no Dong available. ATM number 2 – no Dong available. Hmmm? That’s weird I thought. ATM number 3 – no Dong available. Ok, now I was getting suspicious, certainly Vietnam hadn’t run out of Dong completely????  I rushed back to the hotel to log onto my bank; I didn’t see anything suspicious with my checking account so I skyped the bank.

The Bank Woman: you’ve reached the maximum daily withdrawal amount.

Me: what?

The Bank Woman: yes, your daily withdrawal amount has been exceeded

Me (blood pressure rapidly rising): Well, that’s impossible – I haven’t been to the ATM in at least four days

The Bank Woman: You’ve reached the limit

Me: What’s the limit?

The Bank Woman: $750/ day

Me (slightly hysterical at this point): You’re kidding; I haven’t spent that much money in the last month!

You get the idea, there was fraud – luckily I caught it on the first day and I was able to cancel the card. The crazy thing was that the people were able to get into my savings account, without my card or my PIN. Anyway, I eventually got ALL The money back but the rest of the day I was completely stressed. Against my fathers advice I hadn’t brought any travelers checks and all the secret stash of American Dollars I had were shredded. Luckily, I had just enough to pay the bill and get the hell out of dodge!

Hoi An, friendly and not so friendly – we were frenemies right from the start!

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I am, The Open Road…. Dalat to Nha Trang, Vietnam

I’d been reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which is little less zen and a little more motorcycle for my taste, but it had me revved up for a real ride on the open road.  Since the first time I had EVER ridden on any sort of motorized bike was in India, I would still consider myself a green passenger. So when the opportunity to ride from one town to the next in Vietnam presented itself I really couldn’t resist. It took a lot of convincing but I was able to persuade my new travel companion, Celine, to get on board…I wanted to feel the wind in my hair, the sun on my face and have the earth slide by with no steel barriers.

First, we had to find our way to the hills of Dalat, Vietnam.  After an all day bus ride we slinked into The Dream Hotel, it was a dream too – we had a balcony, complimentary soap and an amazing breakfast. The woman who runs the place is so sweet, speaks perfect English and hooked us up with our guides for the next day.  After a killer spread for breakfast; our guides from Easy Riders (http://www.easy-riders.net/) arrived, strapped our stuff to the back, gave us our helmets and were off…

First stop: The Crazy House, which is crazy and really called The Crazy House. Hang Nga’s Tree House, built by a woman architect who sounds crazy on her own accord has been building the hotel for several years; we admired at the stairways to nowhere, the wacky interiors and the spires of sparkling mosaics.

Second stop: Lak Lake

Third stop: French Colonial houses

Fourth stop:  Waterfall

Fifth stop: Sugar cane fields

It was really easy to let my mind wander, I tried to stay in the present but the mountains and winding roads took me back to Colorado. I kept thinking, “I know this is an outrageous adventure, I mean – I’m on the back of a motorcycle in Vietnam – WTF!” By the time it was lunch we had already started our decent out of the mountains, it was once again – HOT! In the shade of the little roadside restaurant, over a steaming bowl of pho, we embraced the conversation with our drivers about life in the United States and France and all the differences between our countries and theirs.

As we passed more rice fields we saw the men and woman farming and tending to the their crop right on the side of the road. This journey, something specifically about this ride, has made me begin to view life differently – it can be as simple as drying rice on the side of the road or as complicated as the FDA.                                                                                                      I didn’t exactly have the wind in my hair or the sun on my face (the helmet pretty much limited both those things) but so much more was beginning to happen –   I was zen, I was motorcycle, I was Vietnam,                      I was am the open road….

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Pho sho, pray and shake your cu chi – Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

Saigon or Ho Chi Minh, the latter the current name for largest city located in southern Vietnam. After spending a few days floating on the Mekong Delta it was a rush to be back in a big city, especially one rich with all sorts of delicious foods, temples and history.

First order of business, pho. No, not foe or foo or fa, you westerner – it’s pronounced fuh. I couldn’t wait to sit down at an ity bity tiny table on the street and have a steaming bowl of Pho. Even though it’s hot hot outside, nothing beats having a meal for under $2 that is delicious. Pho is the pb&j of the US, the steak frites of France, the taco combo platter of Mexico; Pho sho – it’s acceptable to consume for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Rice noodles, broth, strips of beef, bean sprouts, adorned with mint, cilantro and or basil and spritzed with a lime wedge – I like mine naked… no extra hoisin sauce, just twirl and let the taste do the rest, my mouth a happy camper.

Next, pray. Pray you don’t get side swiped by the millions of motorbikes buzzing through the city, at least that’s what I was praying for. I’m not sure what the many men and woman are praying for in the hundreds of temples all over the city, but they are more observant then most. Lured in by ornate reliefs, hundreds of turtles swimming at our feet – entranced by the interiors, the aura of prayer, the incense wafting. Celine and I meandered in and out of the temples noting differences and saying our own little prayers. Each temple unique and beautiful in it’s own respect, we however over-dosed after five or six.

Finally, a little hands on history at the Cu Chi tunnels. I randomly met up with the Israeli boys from Otres Beach, Cambodia. We were all headed about an hour outside of the city to the Cu Chi tunnel museum. The Cu Chi tunnels were hundreds of miles of tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. The museum is pretty cheesy, but it was a good way to learn a little more about the war and how the war was fought in the jungle. We joked around while climbing through the tunnels, recreated for supersized westerners to fit, but in all seriousness there was nothing funny about the reality the tunnels and booby traps that were used in the war. I squeezed my not so big ass into a trap door and realized quickly that I wouldn’t have made a good soldier.

A few quick days in the capital of Vietnam was all I needed before Celine and I hit the road once again. People have asked me if this trip is Eat, Pray, Love? Well, in Ho Chi Minh I did love praying and eating….

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Good Morning Vietnam! Mekong Delta, Vietnam

It was an era long before live news broadcasts with foreign correspondents, skype and instant tweets. A time when news was delayed yet not slow enough for the horrors of a little “skirmish in the jungle” (as my dad always says) being fought in Vietnam. Young men in the US were being drafted and deployed and coming home not to their young wives but in body bags for burial. A student deferment kept my fathers draft card at an uneasy distance. One day that all changed, in August 1965 all men of fighting age were to be ready for war not if but when their draft number was called – the only acceptable deferment was marriage. My father and mother had wedding plans for September 1965, only two weeks past the August date. My father, a boy of only 20 was eager to say I do to my mother, 19, sooner rather than later. With the fear of war they hopped on one of the last flights out of Los Angeles, bound to say and early ‘I do’ amongst other would be draft dodgers packed inside a tacky Las Vegas chapel. They were married, again, two weeks later no family or friends any wiser to the fact that they had already technically tied the knot.

I leaned my head against the hot window staring as the dense green jungle passed by; my thoughts raced as we entered a land that my dad and so many others had fought to avoid and worse a place where so many people had died. Anxious to experience a much-anticipated country, I had heard on the well-worn travel path that the Vietnamese were cold and all business – I would try to keep an open mind.

My first stop in the South was a “homestay” along the Mekong Delta in Can Tho, Vietnam. Celine and I booked two nights at Hung Homestay thinking we were really staying in a home. Oh foolish girls, we realized quickly that staying in a “homestay” wasn’t actually in the peoples home but in a small little room overlooking the delta. Regardless Hung’s family fed us a traditional Vietnamese dinner and the next morning took us on an early morning cruise in the long tail boat through the murky water of the Mekong Delta.

My eyes popped open not from the faint smell emanating from the Delta, but from the first shot of Vietnamese coffee, a thick tar like substance served with sticky sweet condensed milk. The boats along the river arrived early around 4:30am with different products like rice, fruits, vegetables, chickens and who knows what else. Our boat slowed so we could float amongst the sellers and buyers bargaining and greeting one another in the famous Cai Rang floating market.  Hung pointed out which boats were selling boats, on a tall pole the goods were raised like a flag announcing to buyers what was available. It was an incredible scene, the small buyer boats would pull up along side the sellers and transactions would easily take place and instead of a drive through a woman would sell steaming breakfast soup and cups of coffee along the river.

As the sun started to rise over our heads Hung lent us a ubiquitous conical hat worn by the woman on the river. I had finally arrived in Nam, just in time for breakfast!

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25 Reasons why I (heart) Otres Beach, Cambodia

1. Received hour-long massages for $5 or less, almost everyday
2. The people
3. Jokes about the typhoid “problem”
4. Long swims
5. Delicious lunch of seafood with Khmer spices for lunch everyday
6. One or two or three fresh fruit shakes per day
7. Walks along the empty stretch of beach and contemplated life after Otres Beach
8. Took a boat to a small island and relaxed in the shade
9. Happy hour in Sihanoukville and crazy colored drinks
10. Fantasies about the igloo having air-conditioning @ Done Right Guesthouse
11. Days without using soap or shampoo
12. Came to terms with the sand in my hair, my bellybutton & in between my toes
13. Acquired trinkets from the kids on the beach
14. Ate little crustaceans from the woman peddling food and then prayed
15. Drank beers, smoked funny cigarettes and asked Swedish boys for a kram or a pussah
16. Lounged in papazzan chairs while watching wild lightning light up the sky
17. Long drawn out conversations with funny men named Yan (Jan) from Berlin
18. Read, slept, read, slept and repeated
19. Chased geckos out of the non-airtight igloo for Celine
20. Laughed until I was crying because Celine was so scared of the little gecko
21. Enjoyed a fresh Israeli coffee with the Israelis around noon
22. Celebrated Passover with the Israelis and some other Jews at Loveat (Yes, this blog is not up to date – just deal, I was having fun and didn’t get around to posting!)
23. Appreciated the calm of the morning
24. Watched sunsets
25. Just Be…

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12 hours in Kep, Cambodia

I know there were special things to do and see in Kep, Cambodia I just didn’t happen to see or really do any of them. With my Doctor detour in Phnom Penh I arrived a little later than expected with my new friends from Battambang, Celine and Elianne, anxiously awaiting my arrival. I was greeted with a coconut shake and the option of a rocky beach or directions to a pool surrounded by tropical plants. Um, not that hard of a decision… we headed straight to the “resort” for a late lunch and some pool time. Due to afternoon thunderstorms our pool time was short but sweet – luckily it was almost 5 o’clock, somewhere that is!

Cocktail hour couldn’t have been in a more tranquil scene; we sat at the corner table at the Kep Sailing Club on the deck overlooking the ocean.  The clouds and fog were hanging ominously over the pier jutting out into the endless sea; sheltered from the lightning, rain and wind we enjoyed some of the most delicious cocktails and marveled at the sunset or lack there of. Our drinks led to a fabulous ‘see food’ (not to be confused with seafood) dinner at the crab market nearby where I saw food and I ate it ‘see food’, clearly not a kosher kitchen as my plate was piled high with fresh steamed crabs, steamed veggies and pomme frites.

One of the best things about travelling without a schedule or agenda or plan is that you can change your schedule or agenda or plan at a moments notice. In the midst of saying farewell to Elianne, Celine and realized that we had missed the boat to Rabbit Island, (apparently one of the cooler attractions in Kep) upon hearing the news we trashed the idea of staying in Kep and opted for the beaches of Sianoukville, just West of our current location. I was a little hesitant to head in the opposite direction of Vietnam but I was told it was only 2.5 hours – oye, will I EVER learn??? First we waited almost an hour past the intended pickup time, then the bus stopped 5 times to pick up other people in different places. The 2.5 hour ride quickly turned into a 5 hour ride; to compound the questionable arrival time, there were massive potholes, internment washboard dirt roads, as well as a Cambodian kid that didn’t stop talking the entire ride. I tried to sooth my nerves with thoughts of the ocean, but my happy place was quickly diminishing. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity in a crammed little minivan we arrived in the promise land.  We decided to skip the main party town of Sianoukville and head straight for the less developed, chiller beach where long golden stretches of sand dotted by only a few small guesthouses and places to eat were guaranteed.

Celine and I were beat from a long, bumpy ride and between the two of us we couldn’t make one simple decision – where to stay??? I had my heart set on a beach shack with or without electricity I just wanted to be close enough to hear the waves. After settling on a place lacking the charm I was hopping for we be lined for the beach bar. Half a beer later and one cute bartender from Sweden we decided to move locations. Fortunately, we hadn’t paid so I played the bad guy and broke the news to our guesthouse, we were moving out sooner rather than later.

Our first night on Otres Beach was blissful and relaxing, a great way to end our day in Kep!

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Gnome Pen aka Phnom Penh, Cambodia

I wasn’t in Egypt, but I was in da-nial. I hadn’t felt good in days, if not weeks. I didn’t want to admit I was sick but luckily my next stop was in the capital of Cambodia.  After spending a few days in Battambang I was eager to continue to learn about the Khmer Rouge regime, potentially get some medical attention, check out the scene but not devote too much time in the “big city.”

During the Khmer Rouge a high school in the heart of Phnom Penh was turned into a prison, interrogation and torture center (Security prison 21 or S-21). During my visit to Battambang I learned about S-21 by my guide Mr. Phi Lay who had once attended the high school; now the Tuol Sleng Museum in Phnom Penh is probably one of the best places to really understand the genocide that took place in Cambodia.  I spent hours wandering around the grounds, peering into different rooms that had once been school rooms, scanning the photos of thousands of prisoners, thinking about the horrific conditions and looking at the different torture devices used during the interrogations. At one point I felt sickened and stepped outside, the history so closely resembling Nazi Germany brought thoughts of the Holocaust to my mind, the air relieved my sense of breathlessness but nothing could help the feelings of anger and sadness.

Back in da-nial, I spent some time walking around the National Museum, The Royal Palace, Wat Phnom and the riverfront promenade but the lingering uneasiness would not leave my stomach; I knew it was time to finally seek medical attention. I found the international doctor and described my symptoms from the past few weeks. Sometime between explaining that I had been in India and the doctor pushing on my stomach I left the clinic with time to kill while I waited to “deliver a sample.” I did what anyone would do, I hopped on a motorcycle taxi and went straight to the central market to find a new big hat. While I was trying on big hats another tourist, yes he was kind of a creeper, also trying on hats offered to buy me a drink . We were having a friendly conversation over a coconut when I suddenly became aware of the movement in my colon; I laughed at my predicament and said farewell to the creeper.  I paid the small fee for the bathroom, closed the door in the sweaty, dirty bus station stall and laughed as I retrieved my own sample (sample retriever kit had been supplied at the doctors.) Really? Kind of ridiculous.

I left Phnom Penh, the da-nial, my stomach pains and the experiences on the next morning bus – learning the history (good and bad), seeing some sights, engaging in conversation with a creeper and rolling with the poopie punches is all part of the art known as traveling.

 

 

 

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The day I faced the Khmer Rouge – Battambang, Cambodia

I stood at the mouth of a killing cave and listened as a man younger than my father recounted his personal story of the Khmer Rouge regime (1975 -1979). My stomach ached and I was sweating, not from the heat or the story but from whatever bug I had picked up while traveling. I suppressed my instinct to complain, it wasn’t hard as this stranger told his incredible story of survival, my problem seemed trivial in comparison. The Khmer Rouge history was something I only knew about loosely when I arrived in Cambodia; every day I spent in the country I learned more of the history and years of desecration that had taken place during the first years of my life. After a long boat ride from the magnificent temples of Angkor Wat my journey crossed paths with a man who would forever change the way I know Cambodia. Mr. Phi Lay had been in his 20’s when the Khmer Rouge took power, he not only lost his family but managed to survive the unthinkable; Mr. Phi Lay endured years of suffering from starvation to illness, poverty and extreme living conditions. I spent two days in Battambang with two new friends (who I met on the boat journey from Siem Reap), we listened as Mr. Phi Lay shared his incredible history as well as showed us the people and the life of Battambang.

If you go to Battambang, Cambodia: Please find Mr. Phi Lay for a tour!

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On the river to Battambang, Cambodia

We floated through the murky waters across the Tonle Sap Lake and down the Sangker River; our shallow boat slowing, lessening the wake, as we approached the floating villages.  I learned that how high up the hill one is able to build and how tall the stilts lift a house are a few signs of status; however, most of the houses weren’t on the riverbed but floating on the river.  Their floating one-room homes tethered together by scraps, a corrugated tin roof to shield the sun and if they were lucky walls enclosed by straw woven together.

I was astonished after passing several of these “communities”, each living in conditions that were unimaginable. It didn’t take long on the eight-hour boat journey from Siem Reap to Battambang, Cambodia to realize the floating homes and villages we passed were the poorest of the poor in the region. I’d seen poverty-ridden communities all through South Africa and India but somehow people living on the river susceptible to floods and other evils of the river made my head spin. I felt fortunate to only be passing through, merely an observer of their daily life.

 

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Angkor Wat, Cambodia – Ta Prohm trees

The temple courtyard is quiet, the early morning mist still lingering from the evening slumber. I’m alone as I step out of the tuk-tuk and walk towards the entrance, cautious not to trip on the roots stretching like fingers across the uneven stones. Past the main threshold leading into the temple and I can almost hear the silent prayers buried within the ancient trees. Like a yard in front of a foreclosed home the vegetation has taken on a mind of its own; the trunks of trees woven growing wildly within the stones, roots extending and wrapping around the door frames guarding the secrets of the past and branches reaching towards the sky fighting for the fruit of the sun. A tree grows out from the top of a crumbling roof structure, the massive roots look more like a well-fed boa constrictor bulging and writhing easily over the mossy ruins. Many trees straddle the stone boundaries taking alliance as their outstretched arms extend peacefully on either side. Although the temple is no longer a place of worship it’s remarkable to walk amongst the ruins and feel the life still pulsing and pushing through the every allowable space. I realize that while water will always find its way the silk-cotton trees and strangler figs have found their way within the cracks and crevices of the Ta Prohm Temple.

 

 

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