Returning from Cat Ba Island

After the previous days excursions, May 31 was a somewhat sore day. I actually wasn’t as sore as I was expecting though, which was nice. Tien and I were thinking about finding more things to do on Cat Ba Island, but instead we decided to head home. We chose this over our tentative original plan, which was to take the bus back down the coast and see things along the way. I think it was mainly because we’d been traveling for about a week so far and were just a little tired. In hindsight, I think we should’ve just taken a day to rest, but heading home wasn’t a bad choice either.

We grabbed breakfast and then took a stroll by the waterfront businesses, looking for a travel agency to get us as close to her home town as we could. We found ourselves in a travel agency with a girl sitting in front of a piece of paper with a telephone. She talked and talked forever, and Tien talked back. The woman made a phone call and talked some more, then made another phone call and talked some more. When ended up being the story was that the people on the other end of the phone were away for lunch, and we weren’t making any progress with our flight plans. I should’ve known something lame was going on because I felt that same kind of boredom I often felt as a kid in church or school, like I’d rather die than continue sitting there doing what I was doing.

Eventually we got tickets on a boat and bus to take us to Hanoi, plane tickets would have to wait. Back at the hotel we packed, checked out and sat down at the cafe where Paul was talking with two young brits. He told us the story of their trip to sleep on and island. They had chosen monkey island. They slept under a mosquito net on the beach, but got rained on in the middle of the night. Instead of trying to sleep in the rain, they hiked to the peak of the island in the dark to watch the sunrise, then hiked back to where their kayaks were. Just as they were about to leave they got attacked by a group of monkeys and had to defend themselves with their paddles, jump into the kayaks and row away from shore. It was quite an exciting tale, one of the best I’d heard in my travels. The other two brits he was with were on the island with him and they all thought it was a pretty funny, enjoyable time, monkey attacks, rain and all.

We all ended up on the same boat and bus to Hanoi. The bus took us up near where Tien and I had gone on the motorbike the first night, way off into a marshy area with salt percolation ponds. On the way the bus actually scraped another bus while trying to pass it on a narrow gravel road on the side of one of the karsts. On top of that, our bus was probably the worst automobile I’ve ever had to ride in. It stalled at the top of a hill and a guy got out, I assume to put rocks behind the wheels so they could start it and get it back into gear without it rolling down the hill backwards. I thought about that scene from romancing the stone where the bus breaks down and everybody on board just gets out and starts walking. That scene had never made so much sense to me as it did right then. The bus stalled a few more times on the way to the boat, but we eventually got there.

The boat was not one of the hydrofoils or junks that we’d taken for transit in other places. This was a boat like you’d find in America on a lake, but longer and made for carrying people. There was an inside cabin with rows of seats, and an outside deck with an awning and a bunch of the ubiquitous Vietnamese plastic chairs. Paul, the british kids, Tien and I sat on the deck with a bunch of other people, including a child who kept pulling the hair on my leg. There was also a lot of luggage on the deck, and a motorbike.

After a short ride that was always within distance of land, we arrived in a very industrial place called Dinh Vu. Once off the boat we were divided up into a group going to Hanoi and a group going to Ha Long City. The bus going to Hanoi was blaring loud techno music with the lyrics “who the fuckin who the hell is ringing at the bell right now,” chosen by two slender guys in pilot shades who were in charge of that bus. We drove through some places I had never seen, mostly industrial, and made a bus in Hai Phong to a bigger, higher class bus.

Tien gets carsick depending on the quality of AC that is in the vehicles we drive in. Sometimes she’s fine, sometimes she immediately gets nauseous. Sometimes the nausea comes on gradually with carsickness. This bus was almost immediately nausea inducing. Actually I even got a little bit sick. I looked it up later online and found nothing specifically relating to AC, and it was interesting to me that the condition was so reproducible but nothing online mentioned it. Tien sickly tried to sleep most of the way, I played a lot of Plants vs Zombies.

32::AM::142We arrived in Hanoi ahead of a storm that was making beautiful clouds and a rainbow, and a sunset that was throwing lovely colors at it all. Tien, the brits and I tried to get a taxi, but we couldn’t all fit and so they chose to go with Paul for a while before he caught a bus to somewhere else. Tien and I said goodbye and took off in our own taxi heading to Ngo Huyen street.

When you say goodbye to other travelers, you never know if it’s the last goodbye. We didn’t see Paul again after that.

Tien and I went to the place we thought we’d stay but it was full. We quickly found another place that was nice and cheap. This neighborhood was undoubtably much better to stay in than our previous area. This was the Pham Ngu Lao of Hanoi, the backpacker’s street. Before I had started traveling last year, Lila had told me that in every city you willfind a place where the backpackers go. You’ll be able to find cheap accommodations, good food, good conversation, and everything you’ll need to keep traveling. She was definitely right, and we’d found that spot in Hanoi. It felt relieving to not have to worry about all the little things.

Tien and I left the hotel and went to get dinner, but two doors down we ran into the brits. We had a funny exchange where they said they had just gone to a noodle place, but I thought they said nude place, and had thought “damn, these kids don’t waste any time partying, but where on earth did they find a strip club in Vietnam??” That was the last time we saw them.

We got dinner at a place playing kung fu movies. There was a refrigerator with a sticker that read “Hybrid plasma toshiba refrigerator.” Quite the technological accomplishment.

After that we haggled with a travel agent for a while and ended up not getting our tickets there. We checked the internet and found cheaper tickets, went back out to see if we could find some cheaper around nearby, but after talking about it over some smoothies we ended up buying our tickets from jetstar.com. We decided to stay an extra day in Hanoi so we could get an early flight to Saigon on June 2nd then catch a bus back to Binh Hoa and arrive at a decent hour.

Geocaching on Cat Ba Island

May 30th was another rainy morning on Cat Ba Island. My hair was getting longer than I liked so I decided to shave my head, but when I went to use my electric razor the battery was practically dead. To top it off, I soon found out I had killed the charger by plugging it into a 220v outlet that it was not made for. So long, electric device, another casualty of world travel.

Tien and I decided to go after the only geocache on the Island which was located somewhere in the center of the island. I tried to find a good map of the island but couldn’t, and the topo maps available via the Geocaching iPhone app were pretty poor. This sucked because the iPhone’s assisted (aka, retarded) GPS doesn’t work unless you have cell reception, which I do not since my phone is locked to AT&T’s network. With that in mind I read all of the hints and logs, and found out that the geocache was located at the bottom of the very tower I had joked about climbing to the top of, on top of Ngu Lam Peak.

Hiking the wrong trailWe mounted our moto and headed out for the park where the trailhead was. Unfortunately I was thinking like a n00b and totally forgot to bring food and water. On top of that, we ended up on the wrong trail, one that went up and down steep rocks through deep jungle. There were a lot of butterflies and some animals in the forest making some crazy sounds like a digeridoo. Eventually we ran into some folks who were coming the other way down the trail and when Tien asked them if we were headed towards the tower they said no. They told us where the right trail was, we hadn’t taken the right exit off the main road. We turned around and headed back to the bike, hiking about half the way with the other party.

Looking up to Ngu Lam PeakOnce we got back to the main road, where we were in clear view of our destination, we turned towards home and immediately passed a huge gate with people selling food and refreshments. It was the gateway to the right trail. I made a joke about going to climb it, not really being serious because our energy had been pretty spent on the wrong trail and we still hadn’t eaten anything. Tien said she was up for the hike though, and with several verifications that she was serious we parked our bike and got some refreshments. The sun had just come out, having been hidden behind a nice layer of low clouds all morning, so we walked for a short while in the sun before disappearing back into the jungle and up a steep incline of steps.

A little ways up the trail was a sign that was pretty confusing, but we figured out that it basically said “left is the shorter hard way, right is the longer easy way.” We went left into what was hardly recognizable as a trail. Muddy rocks, frogs, butterflies, crazy vines and deep jungle going up steep, jagged rocks. We encountered two girls who were coming down and talked to them a little bit about what was up ahead. They said it was a lot of the same, and since it was manageable we continued. It soon became much less steep and merged back with the easy trail.

I found a blue gorilla pod that was placed on a rock on display, probably put there by the girls to be easy to spot by whoever lost it. I figured this was a bad idea so I took it and hung it from my backpack, expecting better chances of running into the owner along the trail, but never found them.

One thing that was odd was that there were crabs running around on the rocks. I had seen a few on the previous trail too and thought it was odd, I’d never seen crabs anywhere away from the ocean, and this was far, far from the ocean.

We ascended a few metal ladders that were bolted onto some steep rocks and peeked out of the forest to see a grand view of the island and its many steep hill tops. I recalled that the cache hints had said it was near that spot, so I consulted them and we doubled back to look for it. It was easy to find once we were in the right spot. There was a travel bug inside of it that had been there for two months, so even though I had nothing to leave, I took the TB to remove it from its exile. It wanted to visit zoos, so I made the plan to take it to Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, almost on the exact opposite side of the planet.

With our objective complete, Tien and I continued the short distance to the top of the hill where the tower was. It was a rusty metal tower from the war in the 60′s. It hadn’t been noticeably repaired, and there was a sign indicating that it wasn’t safe for more than 4 people. While Tien and I were at the cache a european couple passed us, and now they were up on the tower, so that made four of us.

Looking down from Ngu Lam TowerTien and I started up the stairs that circled around the core of the tower, but her acrophobia kicked in and she got pretty scared and by the second landing she said she was too scared to continue. I was certainly not going to force her to climb this scary spectacle, but I myself was not about to back down, so I left her there knowing she could make it back down on her own as I continued to the top. Tien and I at the top of Ngu Lam Tower When I got to the top the european couple was up there admiring the scenery, which was incredible. It looked like an unrealistic landscape that some novice would make in Bryce 3d. I exchanged photo taking duties with the couple, and right as they were finishing taking my photo Tien appeared on the stairs, she had overcome her fears and made it to the top. Looking out over Cat Ba Island They took some photos of the two of us, and I took some panorama and HDR sets, admired the view with my own eyes, and then we started down. Just as we were starting down, the european man remarked about how he was a structural engineer and seeing the state of the rusty metal made him want to get off the tower as quickly as possible because it was not safe. It was at that brittle stage of rusty, where you can break off parts of the metal. They went quicker down the stairs than Tien and I did, Down the towerand I let Tien go ahead of me so we weren’t all on the same stairwell, spacing out our weight so as to not overbear this artifact.

Below a rusty towerWhen Tien and I got to the bottom we were all alone again. We had some snacks from the gateway at the bottom, so we took a break to eat bananas, drink a coke, and clean out the potato chips that had spilled in our bag. Everything that was in the bag now smelled like imitation crab. Who ever heard of crab flavored pringles?

While we were eating, Tien and I talked about adventuring. She said this was the first time she had ever done this sort of thing, and I was proud of her. Not only did she do it, she did it after having taken the wrong trail where we had no food, farther from her home than she’d ever been before on and island with steep rocky terrain through a dense jungle crawling with crabs.

Just as we started down we ran into a group of young adventurers who had come up the easy way. We checked with them how to get there, and once we found it it ended up not being too much easier than the hard way. Sure it wasn’t as steep, but it had rusty metal handrails that had broken apart and become javelins waiting to impale you if you slipped on the muddy rocks. Tien did slip, and thankfully she did not impale herself, but she broke the band of her engagement ring in half when she caught it on a sharp rock. I was glad she hadn’t cut herself open in the process, but we were definitely going to have to get it fixed. The rest of the way down was easier than I expected, given the terrain, and at the bottom was a man with a shop and a deep well where he drew buckets of cold fresh water for us. We bought ice cream, water and beer and relaxed before plodding back to our motorbike.

On the way back was Hospital Cave, a cave that had been converted into a secret hospital for troops during the war. I really wanted to see what it was like, but after two trails we were dead tired so we skipped it.

AutoswimmersBack at the hotel I took a shower to wash off the buckets of sweat and caked mud on my legs, then we headed back to Cat Co 2 for a swim to cool down our muscles. The water was a bit chilly, but worse than that, it was really dirty. There was trash of plastic and organic kinds floating in the water all along the beach. I thought about the clear, warm water of Phu Quoc and wished we were back at Bai Sao. We took some photos and left, this Cat Co thing was not our idea of fun. Instead we went back to Bamboo and had dinner while most of the island was without power. It was funny to see the mainland all dark while the floating restaurants and hotels in the bay were all lit up, powered by their boat motors.

Child CycloThere was a boy riding a child-size cyclo up and down the street giving other kids rides.

A few kids came riding by on bikes emblazoned with the word “exercise.”

Back at the hotel we went upstairs, realized we’d forgotten the key at the front desk, and on my way down to get it I slipped and fell on the stone stairwell, bruising both of my forearms.

The silence and whir of the fan told us how the power flickered on and off all night long

A Trip to Cat Ba Island

On the morning of May 28th our alarm failed to go off, or at least we didn’t hear it, but I somehow managed to wake up about 15 minutes before our bus arrived. We hurriedly packed and got downstairs with just a few minutes to spare. Tien tried to find us some breakfast but the neighborhood we were in was mostly construction type shops so she only managed to find some snacks before the bus came and took us away.

There were many europeans on the bus, it was almost entirely full of white folks. The narrow streets of Hanoi were already full of life and packed with motorbikes. We passed by the lake where a street was closed off for a festival that was just beginning. We stopped at a few hotels to pick up other folks, and then stopped at the cathedral to wait for somebody. It was at that time that Tien realized she’d forgotten her bag at the hotel. The bag that had the iPad in it. In her typical stressed out mode, she forgot all english and began blabbing away in Vietnamese with the bus driver and some other folks, and didn’t really say anything to me or answer any questions. She told me to wait, and went to hail a moto taxi. 32::am::138 I chatted with a girl from The Netherlands for about 10 minutes before Tien came back, relieved to have her bag in hand.

At 9am we headed out for Ha Long City. Traffic was heavy on the way out of Hanoi, and I noticed again how the number of cars just seemed to mess up the flow of traffic. Tien and I drank water and ate Oreo cookies for breakfast.

We passed the charred frame of a motorbike that stood up in its own ashes as if it had immolated itself at the side of the highway, probably protesting the rise of the cars.

We passed factories for Canon and Foxconn in the countryside.

We pulled off at a travel stop for 20 minutes. Tien and I got some pomelo and bananas. I was hoping to find a better breakfast, but they don’t know how to make breakfast sandwiches yet in Vietnam. I could make millions selling them… Millions of Dong.

We passed a few auto accidents along the way to Ha Long, one involving a motorbike and one where a car had driven up the side embankment and crashed into a pole, finishing sideways, squished between the pole and the hillside. It was a remarkable sight, I’m not sure if anybody died, but it looked like they should have but didn’t.

Soon after the car crash we arrived at the outskirts of Ha Long City where the bus dropped us off at the docks. Tien and I were the only two folks on the bus left who weren’t going on the cruise, and it felt kinda nice to be sitting there with just the two of us, ready to do whatever we felt like, far away from obligation. The tour guide from the group came over and asked us if we wanted to go on their boat to Cat Ba Island, which is precisely where Tien and I were headed, so we agreed to take their tour for 250k each. It was expensive for a boat ride, but included the Ha Long Bay tour, dinner and a cave tour, so it was a pretty good deal.

The boat we boarded was a typical asian junk. Ours had three levels: rooms downstairs, a dining room in the middle and an upper deck. Dinner was served shortly after taking off. Tien and I sat and chatted with some other travelers and it was good to be back in the company of english speaking, active people. Only one of them was from America, the rest were brits, french and other countries that I never learned. Tien was the only Vietnamese person on the tour that wasn’t working. She mostly listened while I blabbed away with the brits about traveling, culture, food, work, and destinations. One of them, a man named Paul who we’d run into many times on the island, was traveling from London to Australia to work. He’d been traveling for a few months and had a few weeks left. Local transport in Ha Long BayMost other folks were just traveling for fun, some for weeks, some for months.

After dinner most of us went up on the deck to take in the sights as we approached the islands of Ha Long Bay. The boat pulled into a bay and docked with a bunch of other junks and we all got off to explore Thien Cung cave. It was a cool cave, but there really isn’t much to see inside most caves. There was an opportunity to go to another cave, but Tien and I declined and instead went to take some photos and relax.

Everybody returned to the boat and we traveled onwards, through the islands and into a market area where there were many floating houses that were used as a fish market and other business related things. There were girls floating around on boats with their fruit all laid out for sale. They paddled up next to us and shouted out, sounding like retarded people with a heavy lisp, saying “eck-u me, pine-appo” and things like that. It was cute, and their boats were beautiful with the colored fruit, but Tien and I already had some fruits we’d bought earlier so we didn’t buy anything. Instead, we decided to go with a small group on a little tour of an enclosed part of the bay, completely surrounded by cliffs, almost like a lake except it was salt water. We took a small local boat in and a few of us swam around for a while before returning through another natural tunnel.

A short rest on the boat later we were pulling up to Cat Ba Island, which looked like a pretty treacherous place, and seemed like it would be more than one island. Indeed it would be if the water were deeper, the landscape rose and fell just like the islands sticking out of the water, but came down to land at the bottom.

Anybody who wasn’t sleeping on the boat was dropped off on the island. We were, once again, dropped on the completely opposite side of the island from the town. Tien managed to negotiate some kind of bus ride, still with the tour, and after sitting for 10 minutes or so a group of us got in and headed over the crazy terrain.

Cat Ba backroadsThere was one sign at the front of the bus, and it was written in Korean. I’m sure nobody on the bus knew what it said. The ride took 30 minutes and we passed by many, many beautiful views. The steep hills fell down to flat fields where different foods were grown, some ponds and rivers, and countless steep hills. On top of one of the hills was a tower standing tall, and I made a joke about climbing up it. A lot of other people were blabbing away in their native languages, and a group behind us was chatting in english about their travels.

As we pulled into town, Paul and some of the folks he was talking to were trying to find a hotel in the guide book. We all got out right at the main intersection of the town, and after looking at one hotel that had no vacancy I decided Tien and I would probably be better off walking around trying to find a hotel. We went one block and found a place where we negotiated with a slimy guy who I didn’t like much. Tien said she also didn’t like him much because of some things he did or said that showed he looked down on her. The hotel room actually kinda sucked too, no AC, no internet, and a bed wrapped in plastic with a tiny blanket.

We took a short rest and then went out for dinner. There were a lot of people riding tandem bicycles around and we thought about getting one, but decided to do it another day. Instead we returned home and fell asleep. Some time during the night, Tien got up and found some towels to use as blankets. The next morning we woke up and the power was out. 32::AM::139 It was a dreary morning. We decided to find a new hotel.

Finding a hotel has become much easier now that I know to use my iPhone to do it. I don’t look it up online, that’s pretty tough over here where there are no centralized review sites like yelp. Instead, I go into the network settings and look for wifi hotspots with hotel names, then I go to that hotel. Any hotel who has wifi that my iPhone can find from the street has got to be good. The only downside to this is that sometimes these hotels are expensive, but at least it helps weed out the crummy places.

We walked out to the end of the pier that stuck into the bay where dozens of boats were docked. Some were fishing boats, some were floating hotels, some were restaurants. It was a good way to get a view of the shops that went along the waterfront.

We had a disappointing breakfast in a restaurant that seemed like it was closed. I was getting tired of fake coffee. One great thing though was we invented a new food. It’s the stir fried beef and noodle egg breakfast sandwich. Tien orders stir fried beef and noodles, I order egg with bread. I put the egg in the bread with some soy sauce, and she puts some beef and noodles in with it. It is *so* delicious, I’ve been eating it frequently ever since.

We went back to a place we saw the previous night while walking around looking for dinner. It was a hotel that was built into the rock cliff. There was a big room with two beds available for not much money, and we took it. We didn’t need the second bed, but it’s nice to lay things out on when you’re organizing, and for lazing around on like a couch.Tien and the bike at Cat Ba So, we spent the mid day heat being lazy at our hotel room.

We went to rent a tandem bicycle, but the prices were like 20k for 1 hour. A motorbike was as low as 60k a day. We had already paid the girl before we knew it was per hour, and I finally decided to let her keep the damn bike and the money because we didn’t need a bike for an hour. She finally gave my money back as I was walking away. Instead of a bike, we decided to get a moto from our hotel though, for 100k a day.

We cruised some local beaches and then headed northwest on the island into territory we hadn’t seen yet. We found a place where they were filling in a bay with mud to build a golf course. Beyond that there were beautiful, natural places, some caves, farming villages, roaming goats, and eventually a beautiful pink sunset. Finding the rural Cat BaWe stopped a lot along the way and took photos, and at sunset we decided to speed back to the town to go swimming at the Cat Co 2 beach. Unfortunately, by the time we got there the water was off limits, so we sat and had some drinks on the beach instead. I dipped my feet in the water and was suddenly not disappointed that I couldn’t go in, the water was cold. Too cold to enjoy a swim in, that’s for sure. It was a huge difference from the beautiful, clear, warm waters of Phu Quoc. Instead of sticking around, we headed back to town to get dinner at an awesome spot on the water front called Bamboo. It was recommended in the guidebook, but also looked appealing. The staff was nice and the food was great, and it was a very satisfying end to the day.

Tien’s first day in Hanoi

On the morning of May 27 we woke up, rented a motorbike and immediately got lost in old town Hanoi. We got really lost too, and didn’t find our way back to the lake for about an hour or two. When we finally did we stopped for breakfast. I had a western breakfast, a delicious omelette and a cappuccino. It was delicious, and a welcome change to the otherwise mediocre breakfasts I’d been subsisting on.

I managed to avoid getting a ticket for riding our motorbike on the sidewalk when Tien spotted the cops who were pulling people over, then continued on to the Ngoc Son temple. Tien had seen Hoan Kiem lake in a lot of books and on TV as a child and had always wanted to go there, and now she was finally there. It’s a special place for Vietnamese people because it has historical significance dating back a few centuries.

32::AM::137We went into the Jade temple and looked around. Tien went to the buddha’s and prayed in the standard way, with her palms together, raising and lowering them three times towards the statue. Watching her, I got a great idea for an iPhone game that would use the accelerometer. You’d run around a temple and pray to as many buddha’s as you could as quickly as possible. I’d call the game Buddha Blitz.

We proceeded on to the mausoleum where Ho Chi Minh was, but it ended up being closed. I was having fun riding the moto though so I didn’t mind so much. I had sold my last motorcycle a year prior and had missed riding most of that year. We cruised by some other spots on the way back to the hotel. It began raining just as we arrived, so we stayed in for the afternoon and geeked out.

We had dinner at a small restaurant that sold mostly chicken and rice, and I thought about self identity. I saw a man come in with tattoos and piercings, two things that I had at one time wanted but never gotten. I thought back about how I’d wanted to dye my hair and pierce my ears, but my parents didn’t let me do that when I was younger. By the time I was old enough to do it I didn’t want to anymore, it wasn’t part of my identity. I thought about how this detached my physical appearance from how I perceive myself. Because I couldn’t distinguish myself when I was younger, I lost the will to do so. I remembered a daydream I had while driving down 280 a few years ago. I dreamed I was running through the grass fields of the Stanford Campus by the dish. What was remarkable though was that it was the first time that I could remember since I was a kid that I saw myself from a third person perspective in a dream, I usually dream in the first person perspective. I have ended up with a weak style of physical appearance for expression, and primarily a sense of style for what is easy for color blind people to do without thinking about it. I thought about how this related to my disconnection from a lot of my own people, white american men or white people in general, and a disconnection from what people my own age “ought” to behave like.

On the way home we got Oreo cookies, potato chips, juice and beer. I got online with the wired ethernet cable I found coiled up outside the door to our room while Tien went and booked us a bus ticket to Ha Long City leaving the next morning at 8am.

32::AM::137

WarzauWynn posted a photo:

32::AM::137

Today we woke up in Hanoi, rented a motorbike and immediately got lost. Eventually we found our way back to Hoàn Kiếm lake, had a good breakfast and saw an ancient temple. This year is Hanoi’s 1000th anniversary.

Seeing this photo after posting it makes me wish I’d brought along an 85 prime… maybe I should buy one…?

Consular BS, Interview Date, Traveling to Hanoi

On May 24th Tien and I woke up with a plan to head to Saigon. We booked a bus for 3pm and spent the morning playing more Wii and PvZ. We played PvZ all the way until the bus to Saigon was right outside Thu’s house honking its horn waiting for us to get onboard. We got on and headed straight away, getting across the My Thuan Bridge in only 2 hours and 15 minutes.

As we were crossing the bridge the Kid Koala remix of Moon River came on, and I began to miss 4211 Moraga. I first saw the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s when I was living there, and I remember thinking that it was the most accurate example of how the parties at 4211 would go. Full house, people dressed up, climbing in and out of windows onto the fire escape, etc.. I really loved living there, I think we had something that not many people find in their life, and it was great. This week, a year after everybody else moved off the block, Lauren is finally moving away.

We stopped for a snack and then drove on towards Saigon. Night fell and I put on The Kleptones 24 Hours album. I looked out the window and found it hard to tell that I was in Vietnam. Between the mashup music and samples transporting my mind to somewhere in the Western pop culture ethos, the landscape was also changing. We found ourselves on a highway like no other highway I’d been on in Vietnam. It was raised up on a berm with a view out over the dark trees and neighborhoods. There were even green markers with white numbers ticking away the km. It was a smooth highway, and there were no motorbikes allowed here. It felt like we were in the midwest of the USA.

It was also an extremely efficient way to get to Saigon, as we got there in about 4.5 hours, which is less than any other trip we’d taken. We ended up at the same bus station on some back road of District 5 as when I had left Vietnam last November. It’s essentially a garage on a dirty side road off a main street. I think we even took the same van to get to the hotel that we took last November to the airport. We checked into a room on the 7th floor of the Bui Phan Hotel and went next door to Viva Coffee for dinner, then retired. We had an early morning at the consulate to look forward to.

We got up early on May 25, got breakfast and tried to find a motorbike to rent. Nobody would rent us one though since we didn’t have our passports since they were at the hotel front desk. We had planned to take a motorbike to the consulate, but ended up settling on a taxi since we ran out of time before finding a moto.

We first went to a service that Tien’s sister had hired for her to help handle the consulate procedures. I sat and played Angry Birds on my iPhone and waited there while Tien went to get a letter from the consulate that would tell her when her interview date was. This was a significant piece of information, a huge puzzle piece in the nebulous, infinite maze of US immigration procedures.

And of course they didn’t give it to her. It can never be easy with immigration.

They apparently needed her to have a different address. Why on earth it makes such a big deal which address they have on file, I will never know. It is probably the same illogical reasons that banks use when they require you to have a physical address on file instead of a PO box, even when you don’t have a permanent physical address. They’d rather have inaccurate info that fits within their broken rules than accurate information that doesn’t apply to hoi polloi.

So, I went down to the consulate and stood in line. While I was waiting a security guard walked directly over to me and asked me if he could help me with anything. I don’t know why he picked me out of the whole crowd, maybe he didn’t like my looks or maybe I was unknowingly giving him a threatening look. I told him my business and he walked away.

When I got to the window where you can ask information and asked them for the date of Tien’s interview they said they would not give it to me. They needed updated address information for her file. It’s just so fucking important that they know where you *say* you live even if you don’t spend most of your time there. So, so, so fucking important. And that got me really fucking frustrated. Dealing with immigration is the most painful, frustrating thing I’ve had to deal with in I can’t remember how long, perhaps my whole life. It makes me livid.

We went back to the service, Tien talked to them while I sat there and steamed, we got a piece of fucking paper with some words on it, walked down to the consulate and they gave us the info just like that. I should’ve been really happy, but actually I was just really fucking pissed off at how asinine this whole damn situation is. They *really* needed her address updated that badly? It’s not like they know how to send letters anyway, none of the shit they sent us ever arrived at her cousin’s house when she was living there. What makes us think that if they can’t successfully send mail across the fucking city that a letter will ever arrive in a tiny farming village in another province near the Cambodian border? WTF ever, they got their info and we got ours. It was an intel hostage exchange that we had successfully negotiated by complying with the perpetrators every demands.

June 16th.

Tien would have her interview on June 16th, and if she passed it she would get her visa to go to America to marry me on the 17th. This meant we could be back in America by the end of June. I thought about this and tried to focus on the happy things in the taxi back to the hotel.

32::AM::136We took a nap during the mid day heat, then went downstairs and rented a moto from our hotel. This was an idea that we hadn’t really thought of before, but I remembered our ease in renting a bike in Da Lat and got the idea from that. We cruised down to Highlands Coffee for lunch, then went back to the consulate to get the official letter that should’ve arrived at Tien’s cousin’s house however long ago they sent it.

After that we just cruised the city, at first because we got lost and then after we found our way we just wanted to keep cruising and see some sights. It was the first time we’d had a bike in Saigon. Tien had one while she was living here, but never while I was around. Before returning to the hotel we went and bought some plane tickets to Hanoi, some doughnuts and some sugar cane juice. We took them back to the hotel and watched Avatar on my laptop.

We lazed away the morning of May 26, spending a lot of time online in our air conditioned hotel room. My brother was online and he told me that my dad had almost died while choking on a chicken bone. He had passed out and gashed his head on the way to the floor, home all alone. He woke up covered in blood and called for help. My mom was with him at the hospital and he was doing decent, alive and stable and probably not permanently damaged. My brother and I decided to buy him a helmet since he seems to be making a habit of this kind of thing, having done something similar last Christmas.

Tien and I caught a taxi to the airport. That taxi hit a motorbike on the way there. Just gently though, and the driver bitched loudly as he rode off with his passenger. I wondered how Saigon would handle the influx of cars that would undoubtedly come with its current business expansions.

At the airport there were two girls talking in castilian spanish sitting behind us in the waiting area. The Jetstar flight to Hanoi was unremarkable, other than the fact that it was Tien’s third time flying. She did well.

I got an aisle seat in the bus from the airport to downtown, and aisle seats always suck. My shoulders are too broad and everybody hits them with their hips as they walk by.

This was Tien’s first time in Hanoi and I wondered what she thought of it as I recalled my last trip and took in the differences between the north and south. Things are more ornate up here. There is more dirt and more rocks. Most highways are raised up on berms or on bridges, and there are significantly more cars. The traffic didn’t flow nearly as well as it did in Saigon, and it was because of the higher number of cars. One car could be stopped and it would back up the whole flow, whereas in Saigon the motos just go around. Another thing I noticed was that people would drive their cars like motorbikes, driving into oncoming traffic on the wrong side of the street, as if they could just slip by oncoming traffic as easily as they could on a motorbike. Traffic here would prove to be much more frustrating and less fluid than that in Saigon.

At the bus stop a man with a taxi offered to take us to his hotel. It was nearby where we wanted to stay so we went. We agreed to stay there, but the more I looked at things the more I realized we’d checked into a pretty crummy hotel. Not only that but after walking around our neighborhood we realized that it kinda sucked. Those two factors made Hanoi much less fun than I was hoping.

We went out for dinner and found something just as mediocre as our hotel, ate, then retired for the night.

A family gathering, video games

On May 22, Tien’s uncle rented a bus and a bunch of us drove over to where Tien’s cousin has just built a house. Many members of Tien’s family were gathering to remember the anniversary of the death of Tien’s grandmother. We grabbed breakfast in LX on the way and everybody was chatting away while I ate. It was strange to be surrounded by such lively and continual conversation of which I didn’t understand a word, and it made me remember that I was foreign.

Just before we got to her cousin’s house we got pulled over by the cops and had to stay there for 20 minutes or so while the police checked papers and things I don’t know. I was a tad worried that I’d need my passport, which I didn’t have on me, but they didn’t ask for it and we were allowed to go on with no trouble.

The new house was nearly complete, but still in a state of final construction. Many new trees of various kinds had supports to hold them up, and there were miscellaneous construction materials laying in the yard. There were a bunch of folks already there, some that I recognized and many that I did not. There were a bunch of older men sitting at a table drinking tea and talking on and on, laughing and looking into the distance. They invited me to sit and drink tea with them, and Tien said they wished that they could speak with me natively.

After a while, incense was lit and put into vases at little shrines, and everybody stood and sang a chanting song in honor of Tien’s grandmother who had died several years ago. Some people approached a photo and bowed to pray and give offerings in memory. Afterwards we all had a meal and there was a lot more conversation that I didn’t understand, but smiles and gestures go a long way on good spirits.

After lunch the family hung around and talked for a long time. I played with the kids a lot, since games don’t really need language. They were playing with a chicken that was tethered by its leg to a tree in the yard. It somehow managed to climb up the tree and over a branch and ended up hanging by its one leg from the tree itself. I shooed the kids away and untangled the string from the tree, but the chicken just lay nearly lifeless on the ground. I wasn’t sure if its leg was broken, but it certainly had no more will to flee the threat of man.

On the way home I slept, since I had a whole bench seat in the van to me and Tien. We went shopping at the mall in LX and I managed to find a helmet that just barely fit me. I also found WiFi on my iPhone, and got online for the first time in a while to respond to some friends and see what people elsewhere are up to. More and more I find that Facebook isn’t really good for keeping up on what people are up to so much as it is a place to waste time with other people who want to waste time. Twitter is even worse. Direct messages are almost the only ways I can really communicate and keep up with people, unless I happen to catch a piece of useful info in the noisy stream of jokes, links and statements of boredom.

On the way home from LX we turned up some dance music and had a fun, rowdy time in the car. I saw a banner for KFC and wondered if there would actually be one in LX soon… this place doesn’t seem like a good target market for that corporation.

Back at home we got back to feeding our addiction to Super Mario Wii. This can be really fun, but there is an extra level of frustration to that game when you can’t talk to your team mates. “Get on the @#(&*$#@ square or it won’t start moving!” “We have to fly up into that pipe up there!” “Everybody ground pound on three!” “Please don’t live inside the bubble, I might actually need to use it.” Then there are the things like gathering as many power-ups as they can, even when they don’t need them and you do, or pressing the power button on the Wiimote when somebody walks away, ending your game just before you get that third big coin by the end of the castle.

Yeah, communication is a key component of that game. We love it though, and we played it all the next day, along with iPad games. I bought Plans vs Zombies for the iPad, which was a hit. We’d also been playing a lot of Marble Mixer, Flight Control, Air Harp, Diner Dash and Magic Piano. The iPad isn’t good at a lot of things, but it’s sure great for gaming and entertainment.

Adventures on Phu Quoc and the trip home

On May 20 Tien and I woke up on the island of Phu Quoc, went downstairs for breakfast and then took the moto out to have a look around the town. We bought a proper swimsuit for her, some sunscreen, and tried to find me a helmet, which is a continual failure.

Sad, broken puppyRight as we were coming around the corner to one of the shops a puppy got run over by a motorbike that broke it’s leg. The dog lay in the street yelping for a few minutes as we all looked in with pity before a little girl came and helped the dog back to her shop. Tien and I went to the shop to buy stuff and the poor puppy looked so sad, yelping and crying and looking around scared. Poor thing. At least he was alive though, and not being eaten.

Back at the hotel Tien and I prepared to go back down to the beach to go swimming, but as we were leaving the hotel staff asked us why we weren’t going to bai sao, the prettiest beach on the island. It was 45 minutes away by moto, down the road we had taken the previous night. We decided to head there instead, which was a fantastic change of plans.

Boat on the western shoreOnce we got past the construction and actually by the coast it was absolutely beautiful. I couldn’t believe how vivid the colors were. The ocean was emerald and blue all the way to a crisp horizon. The water was calm and reflected the large billowing clouds in the true blue sky.  Our motorbike was pretty good and had the larger tires so it handled well on the dirt roads. There were some rough places though, like a bridge with huge gaps between the metal plates that covered the construction going on below.

We found our way to a little resort by the beach where we ran into the man who rented us our motorbike. He gave me a keychain, which I thought was strange before Tien told me it was the same guy. We also ran into a girl from Tiens village who was working at the resort. She sometimes shopped at Tiens family’s store, and now we were buying beach towels from her.

The resort was a tropic paradise with clear waters on white sand, slow rolling waves over shallow waters that extended beyond a hundred meters. The water was warm, and later got hot enough that we had to swim way out to find the cool patches.

We rented two beach chairs and go. A menu. A little puppy came wandering up and we played with it a little before leaving it at the waters edge where it was scared of the waves.

Floating in the big bathtubWe swam in the shallows, most of the time less than a meter deep. I swam way out to find some deep water but ended up just getting stung on my foot four times while checking if I could feel the bottom. Even where it was six feet deep I wore my sunglasses because the water was clear and calm enough that I was t worried about losing them.

We grabbed the cameras and waded out to take photos, not scared of submerging them in the shallows, then went back to the shore for ice cream and cold beer. After a few hours we decided to get a real meal elsewhere, and as we were leaving I saw a sick man throwing up. I was glad not to know whether it was the food.

Tien and I headed to a stream that was supposed to be beautiful, but when we got there it was all dried up.  With that we decided to just grab lunch a the hotel and ended up napping the rest of the day away.

32::AM::131May 21 we woke up to rainy weather and ended up staying inside sorting through photos as we waited to leave. On the boat back to the mainland we played ipad games, listened to music while it rained and sometimes thundered out on the distant ocean. We also passed an island with a big white statue that looked like a saint next to what looked like temple gates.

The scattered rain kept up as we caught moto taxis to a bus station. I’m always glad the rain in SE Asia is warm.

We ate and had coffee while waiting for the bus. A woman let her child stand up on the motorbike to pick frui. From a tree. A girl came by wearing a shirt that said “Product Bros.”

The bus we caught was a big badass that everybody moved over for. Inside was a movie about children doing Kung Fu. Movies where kids do adult things like fight biker gangs and seduce bikini clad babes drive me crazy.

I noticed a stream of liquid running down the center of the bus and looked back expecting to see a toppled bottle, but
Kid peenstead I saw a man picking a toddler up from her squatted position in the aisle and putting her back on his lap. A bus employee got a newspaper and tried to clean up the urine.

We switched buses in LX and were dropped off right in front of Tiens parents house, then retired to thus house where we had dinner and slept in our familiar bed.

Heading to Phu Quoc

The morning of May 18 we woke up with no power and again made plans again to go to Ha Tien beach. We went to LX to have lunch and surf the net and check out the bus station schedule.

We passed a white man with a white trimmed beard and thick nerdy glasses riding a bicycle through the back streets of LX.

We decided to go to Phu Quoc instead of Ha Tien, and decided to go the next morning. We’d hoped that somebody from tiens family would come but everybody had reasons to stay so it was just us two.

Early on May 19 we woke up to catch our bus. There were men outside of thus house digging a ditch for a pipe of some sort. They were chiseling right through the tile on thus front patio, and not one of them was wearing protective eye gear.

Even though it was early I didn’t feel tired like I had for the previous few days and I remembered that my body adjusts it’s energy level for the pending activities. Now that we had plans I was wide awake and ready to rock.

As we headed out I got a feeling that I setimes get on motorbikes… The naked feeling that I should buckle in somehow, as if I’m in a car. Of course there are no seatbelts on motorbikes, and in VN there aren’t often seatbelts in cars or buses either. If they’re there they don’t get used.

On the ride to the bus station I saw a woman go to adjust the mirror on her motorbike and have it break clean off.

We left the station at 8:10 and before long we found ourselves driving on the wrong side of the road with a man hanging out of the open bus door yelling. We sped past two trucks on our right as a tinny voice blared out of a loudspeaker to our left and the sound of an alarm could be heard from somewhere ahead. Just another typical day of travel in Vietnam.

We stopped at a cafe where there was a sign with some Japanese fantasy character on it. The word “internet” was followed by some Chinese characters and then the words “Final Step 3.0″… oh squaresoft, look what you’ve done. Same to you, internet buzzword machine.

The bus continued it loud caper down the highway which parralleled a river all the way to the coast. There was a shrine on the dashboard and a spare incense holder affixed to the frame of the passenger side window.

We got off at Rach Soi and took motorbike taxis about 12 km to the superdong ferry in Rach Gia. The ferry only left twice daily and we were early, so we ate some food and waited. I noticed them loading motorbikes on and off of other boats and had tien get th price of what it would cost to take a motorbike. At 170k it wouldve been a much cheaper alternative. Next time.

The boat ride was pretty smooth and we passed many small islands. The seats were pretty small though and I was glad when we finally arrived. The boat hadn’t let us off where I thought it would. I thought it was dropping us off in the city and so we hadn’t bought a bus ticket to te town. We ended up getting a taxi for not too much more who took us to a decent hotel where we got a room and rented a motorbike.

We were hoping to go swimming and so we headed off in the bike to cruise the coast in search of a nice beach, but it was too dark and the road was under heavy construction which made it hard for us to navigate. We ended up going back to the hotel and taking a quick dip in warm, dark water with rapidly breaking waves. The swimming conditions weren’t good so we headed back to the hotel, grabbed the bike and heade to the night market for dinner. The night market was small and didn’t have anything interesting, so we had our food and retired.

Over dinner I thought back to one year ago when I was preparing for my first trip to VN. it was strang e to think that in one year, trawling internationally, staying at random hotels in random places and discovering new areas has become normal. It wa strange to think back to a time when my comfort zone was so small that each night I wanted to be in my own bed. Now I don’t even own a bed, much less care where I sleep.

Lazing around Binh Hoa

On May 14 Tien and I went to the market for breakfast. Her family had moved their shop one door down to the entryway where the food stalls are. Hanging in their shop was a shirt that said “Chicago holiday in member recruitment we require oral interview.”

We had a familiar breakfast there before returning to the house to play some Wii. After lunch the power went out, and we spent the rest of the evening playing games on the iPad, eating fruit and playing badminton in the street behind Thu’s house.

A lot of folks passed us on the street and gave different expressions, from happy smiles to uninterested expression. One girl was wearing a shirt that said “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

On may 15th, like many days to come, we woke up with no power. Nhi and Ngoc spent the morning singing You are my Sunshine and playing it on the iPad Air Harp. It was a pretty lazy day, with a few more to come. I thought about a video I saw on the plane that used the same phrase as the Lonely Planet book when describing Vietnam: Life in the fast lane. As I lay in a hammock eating cake and drinking fresh squeezed orange juice in a house with no power I failed to find any fast lane.

Tien and I decided to go to LX to cool off in a cafe and surf the net for a while. On our way we passed a man missing both legs from above his knees. He was shuffling slowly down the side of the highway using two blocks of wood under his thighs as a sort of shoes.

We went to a new cafe just off the main street. There was a No Kissing sign by the door and a photo of GW Bush in the bathroom with his fingertips touching his head and the text “in Texas we call this a brain sucker starving.”

On the way home we went by an electronics shop to pick up a headphone splitter and price a 110/220v converter to hook up the Wii and the WiFi at the same time, but ended up not getting it because of the price. Limited technology isn’t a bad thing.

On the way home I saw a whole family on a motorbike. Dad was driving, mom was cradling a sleeping child on the back and the family dog was resting its from paws on the handlebars.

There was still no power when we got home. Luckily rain came and cooled everything off.

Tien and I made some plans to go to a nearby beach, Ha Tien. We talked about leaving the next morning, but instead spent the next few days lazing around Binh Hoa playing Wii and iPad and badminton. Still can’t find that fast lane.