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.

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.

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.

Can Tho and The Floating Market

We woke up at 6am on Friday to get a head start on the floating market which only lasts the morning. When we fetched our motorbike from the valet there was a tiny blob of bird crap on my seat. Only after trying to flick it off and getting it on my fingernails did I consider bird flu.

We gassed up the motorbike on the way to breakfast. All of the gas station in Vietnam are full service, but this was the first time I noticed that their pumps are configured to turn off at 20k dong and every 10k afterwards, making it easy for them to count without looking as they fill numerous bikes.

We cruised through the city and through more construction. Bridges are the most common project after new buildings. I wished that I had a compass so I could better know where I was. I wished I had an iPhone 3gs and considered the idea of leaving my 3g with Tien. I thought maybe it wouldn’t be good to force her into an Apple world where Apple had such little penetration and thought about other smart phones, like the Droid, and contiuned down a line of thinking that many technologists have gone down where they end up damning the circularly innovating companies like Nokia and Motorola who have been busy doing nothing remarkable until Apple lit a fire under their ass by releasing the iPhone. Now everybody is releasing new platforms for smart phones that sync data (omg what an idea), have real browsers and email, and have standard platforms for app development (no thanks to Sun and Java here either.) I then continued by damning every carrier who locked their customers into contracts with a particular network and no way to get a device outside that network. iPhone, droid, pre… Three new smart phones, all locked to their providers. I silently thanked the hackers for breaking through this asinine misbehavior and allowing us to actually use the devices we have paid for. I still had no compass.

At breakfast I ordered eggs with bread and iced coffee and proceeded to burn myself on the platter my eggs were served in, then ate the peppers that were in the pan with my eggs. This day was not off to a good start.

I thought a lot about Colorado. I had decided to go back to Colorado for December to see my family and stay with my brother now that he’s out of the army and back in America and was really excited about it. It had been a long time since I’d spent a good chunk of time there, and I hadn’t spent much time with my brother in years. Hiking and video gaming, here we come.

We scooted on over to the market and found ourselves on a road running parallel to the river. We stopped so I could take some photos of the floating market and a guy who was loading watermelon into a boat offered to ride us around the market for 100k. I thought that might be a little steep, especially since he was on his way out anyways. Tien didn’t want to go with him because he didn’t have any life jackets. Even after I pointed out that he was an experienced captain and that there was a whole river full of boats that people were busy not falling out of she still didn’t agree so we went back to the corner market, valeted the bike and hired a boat with life jackets for 100k. These life jackets sat untouched and barely noticed at the front of the boat for the duration of our voyage.

Mango Captain It was just Tien and I with the captain as we cruised up and back down the river through innumerable boats exchanging fruits and vegetables. There were a few common styles of boats, most being the big junkers that were anchored to each other and the riverbed. Most people in junkers would sit with some of their goods on top of the cabin waiting for somebody to come by. They had bamboo poles sticking up off of their boat with example fruits tied to them so people could spot what was available at a glance while passing by. Some people were cruising around in smaller ferrying goods from here to there.

Local transport onboard Sometimes we would be right next to the other boats and sometimes we would be far away. I kept switching between my 10-20mm lens and my 50mm, wishing I had an 18-55mm or a second body.

There were many other tourists, some in large tour groups and some with privately rented boats like ours. I saw a slightly heavy slightly balding white guy with an SLR on the back of a boat taking a lot of photos and thought I probably looked just like that. I watched my other self for a while and didn’t care much for how I looked.

As we were pulling back into port our captain gently and accidentally ran the boat into a brick wall sticking out from the steps leading I to the water. He looked back and laughed then corrected his parking job.

Back at the market we found a place to get some drinks. I got a fresh sugar cane drink that was delicious. We sat and enjoyed the drinks for a while and I thought again about smart phones and realized that the iPhone doesn’t have a Vietnamese keyboard layout.

We didn’t stay at the market long and opted instead to cruise the city. After having been the driver in Da Lat and the fact that my ass hurt so bad sitting on that seat, I really disliked being a passenger. I was missing the five contact points of a bicycle, having really only one since the motorbike was too small for the foot pegs to do me much good.Defiant I tried to enjoy the ride while looking at the river, some parks and all the local daily things, but I was honestly really happy to return to the hotel for a rest before starting the journey home.

We grabbed lunch at the restaurant that we had intended to visit the night before and then began our long and painful ride north under the mid day sun.

I saw a John Deere sign and wondered how much business they got in the Mekong where so much of the work was done by hand.

A steam roller came driving down the road going the opposite direction. Apparently in Vietnam they redo the roads while still letting people drive on them.

The billowing clouds in the sky reminded me of that song “little fluffy clouds”, which I first heard incorrectly as being by Orbital, and I decided to put them on my iPod.

After one and a half orbital albums we stopped to take a break. We looked in vain for a place with wifi and decided to settle for hammocks instead. Laying there with an ice cold drink, staring up at the ceiling of our wooden hut, tien asked me if I knew about those kinds of houses. She told me that the roof was made of coconut leaves and said that when she was a little girl her family lived in a house made that way. That was amazing for me to think about, having come from living in a house made from bamboo and coconut leaves to now, and the unknown future.

As I paid for our drinks I realized that Ho Chi Minh was on all the bills in Vietnam. I wondered why it was that only this one man was so important and how that had steered the Vietnamese culture.

Trip to Vũng Tàu

My layover between Vientiane and Saigon was Phnom Penh. I thought this would be great because I could call Tien using my Cambodian SIM card and let her know that my flight was an hour late, but she didn’t pick up. We were on the ground for about 15 minutes, then I boarded the same airplane in the same seat and we flew away.

Along with arrival and departure cards for passport control, the spread of H1N1 has prompted governments to require incoming visitors to fill out questionnaires about the state of their health. Previously the questions had been something like “Have you had dizziness, cough, diarrhea, fever, nausea within the last 10 days? What countries have you visited in the last 10 days?”

The Ho Chi Minh airport has had the most outbreaks of H1N1 that I’ve heard of yet which explains their additional diligence. “Have you come in contact with anybody who has had fever, cough, diarrhea, nausea within the last 15 days.” I couldn’t even remember everywhere I’d slept in the last 15 days.

I managed to find the slowest line at passport control. This is something I have a real knack for. I also had done this in Thailand when I was trying to catch a flight that was already boarding and in Laos with the whole pen incident.

As I was walking outside I felt distinctly different from the last few times I was in Saigon and I thought about how much I’d done in the past few weeks that had given me a new confidence in international travel.

As I walked outside Tien was waiting for me in a black blouse and a white skirt, looking beautiful and beaming with joy. I never quite know how I’m supposed to express my feelings within cultural affection allowances, but I managed to find something that was acceptable to show my joy at having her back. She grabbed her sister Mai, who I was not expecting to see, and we went off to find a taxi.

This was where my travel experience came in handy. I cut through the timidness that Tien has, kicked the first taxi driver to the curb and found a ride to the hydrofoil station at a quarter the cost. This is what you learn from getting ripped off at the Saigon airport. “Fool me once, shame on … shame on you. If you fool me… We can’t get fooled again.”

We got to the hydrofoil station and I was quickly reminded how utterly chaotic Saigon traffic is. Smoggy, loud, and chaotic. What sense is there in calmly walking across a six lane river of continuously flowing traffic?

We bought our hydrofoil tickets for the Vina Express to Vũng Tàu, but it wasn’t leaving for over two hours, so we found a place to sit and wait while drinking coffee and eating some noodles. Then it began to rain. Then it began to pour. Then we realized that we would miss the glorious sunset we’d hoped to see from the hydrofoil just as we were to arrive in Vũng Tàu.

The hydrofoil was awesome and pretty freakin quick. It skimmed over the water and made big splashes up onto the window. It was also very agile in the water, so agile that sometimes we thought it’d tip over, but it skimmed by tug boats and ferries and barges and oil rigs down the Saigon River and off into the pacific ocean. A girl came by and told us that because of the weather there were oceanic problems at the port so we’d have to go to a different port and take a bus into town. This frustrated us beyond the mere absence of a sunset, but that’s how travel goes in these places. There was also the standard TV display of random entertainment and most of what we saw was some weird kung fu movie with four people who would wring out a shirt and drink water from it, then use it as a weapon.

Right at dusk we pulled up near a dock in an industrial area a little ways up a calm river just south of Vũng Tàu. It was still gently raining as they made us climb over 3 ships with no planks between them while carrying our bags to get to the actual dock. Tien was still wearing her nice clothes but we managed to cross with few issues. She admitted that she’d dressed poorly for traveling because she wanted to look nice for my return and this was fine by me.

Some of us managed to pile into a bus and fill it completely up while others remained outside in the rain haggling with taxi drivers. Soon it was completely dark, the rain had returned to a pour and we were stuck on a one lane dirt road behind a car that had no driver. I was reminded of those idiots in SF who double park on the train tracks and lock their car then disappear inside of a building. One time I sat on a train for 30 minutes while they towed the car. This time it only lasted 5 minutes though, which was nice because traveling can really wear you out and I’d been traveling all day and had already been off schedule twice.

We arrived at the bus drop off and stood under an awning at the local KFC while people tried to figure out where they were going to stay, then tried to find taxis to take them there. It’s interesting having people who speak the language with you because they can actually get useful information, but this information is rarely passed on to you. I kept flipping back and forth between “let me handle this” mode and “you handle this” mode. In the end Mai found us a place next door to the house of a girl who was trying to find a taxi, so the four of us got in the taxi and headed off. It appeared to be nowhere near the beach by the time we got there on the back streets, but in fact ended up being only two blocks from the beach. We dropped our stuff in the room, took a little rest and went off to find dinner.

After dinner we walked down to the beach. It was great to finally be there… aside from the fact that the waves on the shore were lined with trash, it was beautiful. With Tien on my back we waded about 50 feet out into the warm water and stood there watching the lightning storm that was going on way out in the Eastern Pacific. It felt great to be back at the ocean. I had been by the ocean for the previous year and a half while living in San Francisco, but in the previous two months I was away from it and it was great to have it back. Even more, it was great to be in warm water as opposed to the cold SF Pacific, and it was great to have my girl with me to experience the lightning show, which was reminiscent. It was, I guess, a mix between old good memories and new joys.

The following day we got breakfast and then headed out to a large Christian monument on top of a hill just south of the strip where we were staying. This was the first real Christian anything I’d seen on my trip. There wasn’t a word of english or french on any of the plaques so I have no idea what it was about, but there were angels and moses and cupids and at the top of the walkway up the hill, a huge statue of Jesus with his arms outstretched.

By the top of the hill I was drenched in sweat. I sat with Tien and talked about some of the hardships we faced in getting married and bringing her back to the USA. There are a few big hurdles to pass this month and I wanted to make sure she was still with me on all of our plans. She was, so we were happy. Her sister arrived with a bag of fruit after we’d been there a while, so the three of us sat and ate lychee and rambutan. We stayed at the top for a while, then headed back down the hill and off to the hotel.

Our plan was to clean up and go swimming, but the climb up the hill and the heat of the day had wiped us out, so we ended up falling asleep for an hour or two. This was fine though, we needed it, and afterwards we headed down to the beach. We found three chairs to rent and Mai stayed to watch our things while Tien and I ran off to go play in the water. As it turns out, swimming is not one of the things that is taught in Vietnamese school. Later I had a good conversation with Tien about the differences between an average first world education and an average third world education. The fact that Vietnam is about halfway covered with water yet they don’t teach swimming blew my mind. Tien said that 15 students had died the previous year from drowning while riding a boat to school in heavy rains.

This lack of swimming education made Tien terribly frightened by the waves and it took me a while to chase her through the water and coax her out past the breakers to where the water was more calm. Unfortunately she couldn’t always touch the ground out there. She had seen a photo I took in Ha Long Bay of a boy floating on his back and wondered how he could do that, so I taught her how and in typical Tien style, she learned very quickly. In 15 minutes she was floating on her own as large waves that were on their way to breaking passed her by. We ended the swim lesson, took a few minutes to enjoy the water and the fact that we were finally traveling together, then headed back to the shore to let Mai have her turn in the water.

There were women walking around with eggs and fish and baskets containing metal cans with fire that was boiling water where they would cook you fresh seafood. Many women were walking around with baskets of fresh fruit, and some guy was riding his bicycle by with a huge speaker system on it that made me think of the pillow fight in SF this year. A few people rode down the beach on their scooters. A group of kids next to us had collected a few dozen shells with crabs inside of them and as we were leaving one of the crabs tried to walk its way off the table. A man nearby picked it up before it got off the table and showed it to the group of friends he was sitting with.

Mai, Tien and I headed back to the hotel. The path to the beach is a typical Vietnamese path, which means it is free to ride scooters on and do whatever else you feel like doing on. Some kids were parked on their scooter talking on the phone. One woman was cooking up some weird fish that looked like a flat octopus.

The next day was Monday, but still Sunday in the USA which means I still had time to post my weekly photo set, The (d)SPOT. Because there was an elevator shaft between our room and the AP, I had to sit in the hall next to the elevator to do my work. I caught up with some co-workers and did other assorted online stuff as I was posting my photos. Just as I was finishing up and saying goodbye to some folks, the power went out. At first I thought the AC had just gone off, but then my internet connection was interrupted. I finally verified that it was indeed the power being out by checking the elevator, which was nonfunctional. I thought about how awful it would be to be trapped in an elevator in a small hotel in a third world country and was thankful that I was not.

A day among the islands of Ha Long

So there I was, back in the bathtub in my room at the Chains First Eden Hotel in Hanoi Vietnam. I was drinking a Tiger beer and had just used up all the hot water washing away the sweat from a long day of hiking and boating in Ha Long Bay. The photographs from the last 24 hours were importing from my D300 into LR2 and were instantly being backed up to my external hard disk where they would be safe in the event that my laptop got stolen.

The hotel room was different from my other one which was directly across the hall. That one had a view of the downtown park out its window. The window here could be opened about 2 inches before it hit a hot water pipe. I guessed I wouldn’t be getting anything like the sunrise awakening I got today on the 5th floor of the Bach Dang.

Floating in Ha Long BayThis morning when I woke up there was sand and a bunch of rocks where there used to be water, and I remembered that we were on the Pacific Ocean. The tide had gone out. I got ready, went downstairs and ate my breakfast with the parisian couple, caught up on some online stuff and then we headed off for the boat. On the way I saw an image of a bay with a speed boat circling another boat. A minute later I saw that same bay and the same speed boat circling two rocks sticking up from the water where the 2nd boat had been. I wondered why on earth in a place with such blatant and obvious beauty did somebody feel the need to embellish with a composited image. Advertising spits in the face of true beauty.

As we were going to be outside all day long I put on a bunch of sun screen, and I managed to find and buy a hat with the bartering help of one of the VN mothers who is on my tour. I got a good price on it, something like $2. This is especially nice because when I was shopping with Tien for hats I couldn’t find one that fit, and this one fits perfectly. It is emblazoned with the Vietnamese flag and the name of the country, my first souvenir and a functional one at that.

When I got on the boat I found the tour guide and got down to business. I was in debt to him a healthy 5,131,000 and had to come up with the money in the next day. I forked over 4 millions on the spot and told him I’d get the rest to him later. I thought about “Coming to America.”

We headed out across the wide bay on a junker style boat, an open upper deck and a covered gallery below, no handrails on the front end by the stairs and one mast that is clearly not used for sails. The sky was hazy and provided a diffused shield from the sunlight, which was very nice. Unfortunately as soon as I noticed this it went away and we were attacked by direct sun rays.

Everybody began taking photos on the upper deck even though the cliffs were still a few miles away. It continued, however, until the cliffs were right there, and then it wasn’t so ridiculous. The cliffs are great… they’re strange. They remind me of the cliffs by my house in Almont, except completely overgrown and with an ocean at the bottom. They were immediately impressive and I can see exactly why this place is being nominated for one of the 7 natural wonders of the world.

There were little groups of boats and floating houses that were tied together. We stopped at one that had little square openings in a floating deck, holes where different kind of sea life were swimming around. Crab, shrimp, all sorts of stuff I didn’t recognize. There was a man with bloody hands chopping up a fish. There was a man pouring boiling water onto two large fish in a large pot. A man took a fish out of the water and clubbed it three times before it quit flopping around and died.

We got back on the boat and kept going. Some other folks that weren’t on our tour were on the boat and one of them was a camera nut. He had an old nikon film cam with a 28mm ƒ/3.5 lens and a modest external flash. He was taking pictures of his family on the boat. We talked a little about photography through the only other english speakers on the tour. It always bugs me when people ask how much my gear cost. I always think back to that time where these two guys were trying to hustle me in SF.

Docked at Surprise CaveWe slowly circled counter clockwise and northward until we got to a place called Surprise Cave. I never found out what the surprise was, but we sure as hell found the cafe. It was really big, way bigger than I expected. The caverns stretched maybe 100m or so into the rock. It looked like something out of Half-life 2 and I kept looking around for head-crabs and corpses with spare supplies. It was the other two english speakers and I walking around and we had lost the tour but we quickly found them with the sonic assistance of a wailing spoiled brat. We talked about how awful that kid was. We agreed that he is a monster. We finished the tour of the cave and headed for the boat.

The day was incredibly hot at this point and I was pretty much showering in my own sweat, so I bought a cold drink off a vendor and took it back to the boat. As we pulled out of the dock we talked about weather, hot and cold. The girl was talking about how cold NYC was on new years. I told her that if she had the right clothes she’d be almost fine with the cold. She said that even with the right clothes her face would still be cold. I told her that there’s no cold a bottle of whiskey can’t help you withstand. She said that she doesn’t drink. She was wearing a t-shirt that said “just add cocktails.”

Next stop was a man-made beach. There’s no natural sand in Ha Long bay so they had to bring in sand from other places. Since the waves are so small I imagine they don’t have to refill the sand on the beach very often. It was a nice beach and we spent an hour on the island. I climbed up to the top of the precipice and took a bunch of photos. Ha Long Bay I was kicking myself for not bringing my tilt/shift lens with me. It was too heavy to bring, but the views from the top of this place would’ve been ƒ *amazing* in TS. I will just have to come back again.

Ice cream was never so good. I sat at the bottom of the cliff in the shade of a hut and ate an ice cream cone while the sweat shower I had taken on my way up the mountain evaporated. I looked at the ticket for the tour and saw that it cost 40,000 dong. That’s about $2.50. The relativity of wealth is staggering.

We headed back to shore, got on the bus and started driving.

I saw a girl on a bicycle talking on her cell phone while the girl on the back held a parasol above their heads. I saw this again a few hours later.

I saw four adults on a 110 cc scooter.

I saw a man on a bicycle with a stack little cages with colorful birds inside.

I saw a little girl sitting in front of her dad on the scooter, sleeping with her head on the dials.

Painting mugsI saw cows grazing in a cemetary.

I saw a woman on the sidewalk cutting a block of ice with a table saw.

Judging by the commonality of models, the Honda Wave 110 is the most reliable scooter.

We stopped at a little pottery place where girls were hand making and hand painting pots. They made all sorts of clay things, from lions to ducks to cups to chopsticks to pots to vases. They were pretty girls, quiet and attentive to their work. It was amazing to see them so smoothly stroke out the designs they were doing. I thought that they could make much more money being artists in America. They asked me to exchange $10 for them, so I gave them a good deal at 100,000 dong. They deserved it, I wasn’t going to buy any of that novelty stuff anyway, even if it was skillfully made by hand.

Outskirts of Hanoi We continued driving. Vietnam countryside is almost entirely rice paddies. Fields and fields of beautiful green rice with roads running through them. The people here are real farmers. They don’t just drive farm equipment, they do the farming. They walk out in that field and cut that rice by hand. They wrap it into a bushel by hand, pile it into a package and wrap it by hand, then put it on a bicycle and ride it back to town where they they do whatever it is that they do to make it into small grains, and then they sweep it up and put it in bags. They also burn a lot of stuff, I don’t know what that’s all about but there were fires and smoke everywhere.

Seeing these fields I was reminded of the drive between Colorado and Texas, which I’ve done more times than I can count. I used to hate that drive, and I wonder how bad it would be right now because I don’t get tired of staring out the window at rice paddies, listening to music on my iPod. I’m sure I will though.

In America, homeless people gather under bridges. In Vietnam, everybody does. A bridge provides shade from the sun, and you will see people selling drinks, bread, pho, anything you can imagine under a bridge in the middle of the country.

I saw a circle of houses around a large depression, a hole in the earth that had a pond in the bottom of it. I wondered if it was a bomb crater from the war.

We stopped for dinner and even though it was nearly sunset, it was blazing hot. So hot that as soon as somebody put ice in my glass it immediately started spinning around as it melted. It was gone before I had finished my first glass of tea. My second glass was warm. The meal was good though. I don’t know why they have to serve fish with the head still attached. Everything I chose to ate was good, right up until the end. There was a soup which I later found out was spinach and crab meat soup, but when I tasted it I could’ve sworn it was dirt soup. It was absolutely terrible. It literally tasted like eating dirt, and I do know this from experience becasue one time when I was running from the police I tripped on a fence and ate a mouthful of dirt, then just lay there still in the field hoping they wouldn’t see me, so I got a good long taste of dirt. This soup tasted exactly like that, except it was liquid.

I excused myself and went outside to play with the nicer kids. I had brought my hacky sack and tried to teach them to play. The boy picked it up quickly, but the girl fell into the problem of trying to kick too high. I couldn’t get her to kick low, and her brother kept treating it like it was a full contact sport so she soon left. The father of the brat came over and he, another guy and I had a good game and all ended up once again showered in sweat. We piled back into the van and headed back to Hanoi.

Because there are so many scooters in Vietnam there are also a lot of helmets. People express theirself through their choice of helmet. Some helmets look like baseball caps. Some look like cowboy hats. Some look like military hats. Some look like girly sun hats. They have some pretty rad helmets here. I’m pretty sure they’re not DOT approved though so I’m not going to bother buying one.

We made it back to the hotel and I made it to my room, which brings us to now. I’m sitting on the floor, a single protected wifi signal within sight, a little bit of beer left in the can, wondering once again if I should go out and make the best of Hanoi.

This is the same problem I’ve run into in America. Do you leave your comfy bubble where you can simply be lazy and go out into the big bad world and experience something exciting, or do you stay indoors where you’re safe and cozy? Tonight, I’m not sure… I may stay in and develop the 300 or so photos I took today. Bleh, never enough time, even on vacation, if that’s what this is.