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November 29, 2004

Up the Coast in Vietnam

Well, well - wouldn't you know that when the brochure says it only takes 6 hours on the bus to end up in Dalat it always takes about 9! 9 hours of sitting in small seats on bumpy roads listening to the driver honk his horn 500 times a minute. Errrgg. If you ever decide to go on a worldwide trip make sure you save enough money to take the damn train!!

So we showed up in Dalat on our way up the coast to the pleasant surprise of an excellent, cheap hotel room with free internet access--a rarity of rarities, especially in Vietnam! Despite the draw for a little mind numbing computer access we forced ourselves to actually go outside and have a look around. I'm glad we did. Dalat is a mountain town retreat from the rush of Saigon and the heat fo the south. The air was cool and clean. As it turns out Dalat is an example of colonial French architecture. The houses lined up in rows and built in such a way that its easy to get lost in the imagination of actually being in the south of France. To top it all off the city has even built its own Eiffel Tower and uses it for telecommunications!

The next day Amanda and I took a local ride out to the Valley of Love, a park-resort of sorts. Famed as the honeymoon vacation spot for Vietnamese we just had to see what all the fuss was about. Our love bird nature wasn't really keyed up by the fiberglass cartoon characters but the scenery was nice and worth a quick walk before heading back to town. In Saigon we met a girl on our tour of the Cu Chi tunnels, Emily, who is the exact clone of my beloved sister Heather. Too our surprise she showed up around dinner and decided to hang with us for a few days. It turned out to be good practice for my upcoming travels with Heather in China. Not to dwell, though I did the entire time she was with us, Emily talks, writes, acts and even leaves dirty towels around just like Heather!! It was really weird!! Ok ok. We all spent another day or so exploring in the cool climate. As usual, where you'd least expect it, we found a mark of the west in a Swiss made, brand new skylift just outside of town. Not knowing what exactly was on the other side we paid our fee and went for a ride. It turns out that the cable leads to a very well endowed monastery surrounded by beautiful gardens and a lake. It seemed welcoming enough though they made it clear that western fashion is not appreciated. We strolled the grounds and headed back to town before making plans to jump back on the [shiver] bus for Nha Trang.

After all that cold we were in need of some fun in the sun. Nha Trang is in the middle of a hotel and restaurant building boom to help answer the tourist call. Still, the town was enjoyable and boasts one of the only decent Mexican food joints on this side of the Pacific. Plus, the beach is excellent. For about $1 you can get a big shade hut for shelter from the sun. After a few days (and a big hassle with a music store there, The Groove Shack) we were back on the [double shiver] bus. This time it was an overnighter to Hoi An that at some point during the night had me laying in the floorboard with my feet in the street praying for an hour of decent shut eye. No luck.

Hoi An, however, was worth the pain of a lousy ride. Its a small town with extended history dating back to trade with ancient China and beyond when it was as an important port as Melacca, Malaysia. Anyone looking for an excellent read about world history that is actually interesting should check out Gavin Menzie's 1421. Traders would bring their wares here and have to stay the winter season until the winds changed to carry them home. Japanese traders built a cool foot bridge and a look at the nearby river shows what it once might have been. The real draw to Hoi An though is not so much all the history but all the cool things you can buy. The whole city is full of quality art, gongs, lanterns, lacquerware and best of all tailored clothing!! Amanda took advantage of $6 button down shirts and $35 suits while Emily egged her on. Luckily, we found a good tailor in Vy at Cay Da and she made sure we were happy with everything we bought. I bought several shirts and a few pair of pants, 3 of which were from another tailor who couldn't fix them the way I wanted. Vy came through in a spot and fixed the other tailor's shoddy work. If anyone is interested in sending measurements to Vy she said she could whip something up and send it to the US in no time flat. We'll let you know how our stuff holds up once we get a chance to really wear it. That is if it all makes it home. Amanda went hog wild when I wasn't around and bought a whole new wardrobe for everyone and their brother! We ended up walking out with like 100 pounds of new clothes! If you aren't sure how much that is then you can take my word for it. I now have one less vertabrate than I did in Nha Trang. In the midst of ordering clothes we took a day trip out to My Son, the ruins of the ancient Champa kingdom. Known for making their buildings out of red brick it looked like a very, very small Angkor Wat. At least, the parts that survived the Vietnam War looked like Angkor type structures. The good thing about hanging with Emily is that we get a few more pics of Amanda and I. You might have seen that it was a little dreary that day. We headed back to town and chilled in a local cafe.

We stayed in Hoi An for about 5 days. Amanda and Emily did a cooking class together while I explored. I could have stayed longer but the road was calling. We parted ways with Emily who had visa issues and had to head off to Laos. It was great to travel with Heather- I mean Emily- and we missed her when she left. Especially because I could have really used a 3rd hard for that big bag of clothes (no joke). Luckily, we only had to go up to Hue.

Hue was once the imperial capital of Vietnam and home to the Imperial Emperor. The Communist regime brought and end to the royalty issue and the past few decades of war have almost brought an end to any remaining architecture. The old quarter now boasts a former communist stronghold and huge Vietnamese flag. Instead of joining the throngs of other tourists visiting the palace we took a cyclo around the remains of the walled city. It was a great ride until we got into a nasty argument with the driver after he tried to overcharge us for the lift. Before I knew it he had a crowd of Vietnamese around him staring while he yelled another few hundred dong out of us. Jerk. There's always a bad apple I guess. Otherwise, the people were friendly and though the town is busy its pleasant. Old ladies ride bikes laden with flowers as people on motorbikes whiz right past with an annoying honk-honk. Eventually we made it inside the palace. Its another one of those places thats a testament to how things can go from being so good to such crap. The complex was probably quite a sight in its prime. Huge bronze cauldrons sit in the courtyard as a testament to the skill of artisans living there in the 13th-15th centuries. It must have been a wild place.

When we were done with Hue we decided to just splurge on a cheap train ticket since it is by far the longest we'd have to travel between cities. I think I'm jsut to frikkin' big for this continent. Still, I'd trade the train any day rather than take the bus if I can help it. After an enjoyable 16 hour ride sprawled out in the train we pulled into Hanoi but we didn't stay long.

We immediately booked a trip with Kangaroo Cafe and headed off the next morning for Halong Bay, the jewel of Vietnam. This area is known for its countless limestone formations sticking out of the water as obelisks or entire mountains. We got paired up with an excellent group and made many new friends as we sailed along the bay. Our first day included a visit to a huge cave with ancient formations including one that has been referred to as an aphrodisiac. It was a popular tourist destination and all the tour groups stopped there for at least an hour. I felt like I was in a pirate movie looking down at all those ships. We all left the cave and spent the night onboard after watching the sunset across the water.

The second day was mainly spent on Cat Ba island to our chagrin. Cruising around on the water would have been much nicer but hey-that's life. We did get to cruise over to Monkey Island to feed the natives -- I mean the monkeys. Please excuse our Finnish friend. He's not used tothe warm weather. After the feeding a few of us decided to play a vietnamese school game instructed by our guide. Apparently one side lines up against the other side and races for a stick propped up between them. The trick is getting the twig and getting back to your side without getting tagged. The punishment can be quite hard work depending on who loses! Thanks Florian!! After the exercise the group went back for some dinner and a few drinks before heading off our seperate ways to bed.

Our last day was spent with one final cruise from Cat Ba back to the mainland and a long 3 hours journey back to Hanoi. I'll miss passing those cool junks and enjoying that amazing scenery. Some people speak of the Grand canyon with a fire in their eyes. Halong bay will always be that way for me.

Since then we've been pretty burned out with the tourist scene. Amanda and I have done almost nothing since we've been here in Hanoi. An effort was made to see the famous Vietnamese water puppet show since it was so close and that turned out to be a killer performance. Who would have thought that water could help make puppets look so alive?! If you are ever in Hanoi, check it out. I can't say that for much else except the pagoda on Hoan Kiem lake and the outside of the Opera House we saw in passing. It looks like a great place to catch a show if one happens to be on. I guess avoiding all the sight seeing means we'll have means something to do when we come back!!

For now, its off to the grand ol' US of A for Amanda. She will touchdown in Atlanta on Dec. 3rd so if you're in town come take her out to dinner - cause she is going to be broke. Maybe she'll trade you for some good stories or a pair of cool chopsticks!

I'm off to China where I'll be meeting my sister, Heather, in Kunming-if she doesn't miss the flight. If you know Heather you know she has a tendency to miss the bus. Lets just hope she realizes that a flight is a bit more important! After 2-3 weeks in SW China we'll head to Taiwan for the holidays. I hear that internet is not always available in rural China so I'll keep you posted when I can!!

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Posted by Josh on November 29, 2004 06:56 AM
Category: Where are we?

Josh, I enjoyed this blog entry the best, The caves were COOL and the Junks were WAY COOL. How funny the references to Heather. LOL Tell her we love her and enjoy each others company. In the big ol' world there you are- together, how awesome!!!! It will be neat to actually KNOW what the locals are saying!! Have fun!

Posted by: paige on December 6, 2004 05:59 PM
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