Hiking on Mt. Cam

We planned to go hiking on Mt. Cam on Wednesday. It’s a long way to get there, so we had planned to wake up at 5am. I rarely sleep well before having to wake up early, and this was no different. I wasn’t watching the clock though, since that doesn’t help you sleep, and so we overslept a little.

When we were all up I packed my camera and water into a backpack. I wore zip-off synthetic pants that dry quickly, the perfect thing for long exposure to sun but still good for swimming and hiking. Breakfast at the Binh Hoa marketI was the only one who was really dressed for hiking though… Tien, Thu and Mai looked more like they were going shopping, and I wondered if we would actually do any hiking at all.

We got breakfast at a stall in the market on our way out. I got to watch the woman make the hu tieu, which is just pho with different noodles. That was kinda neat, I always wondered how that process worked. The magic is the soup in a huge pot. There were flies everywhere at the stall, landing on the meat and vegetables. When the woman sitting next to me paid she got her change returned to her right on the noodles that were going to be used to make people’s food. I’ve never worked in a restaurant, but I’m pretty sure flies on the meat and dirty money on the ingredients wouldn’t fly in America.

Tien and I headed off on her bike with her sisters following. I had the headphone splitter connected to my iPod so Tien and I both got two earbuds to listen to the new Late Night Alumni album that had come out the previous day or so. We took a dirt back road out of her village, one that we’d passed but hadn’t taken before. It was neat to see what was back there.

A waterway ran between two dirt roads on each shore that were almost big enough for a car. There were people fishing on little canoes and rickety wooden docks. A man squatted next to the river smoking a cigarette. People with bicycle powered stands for bread and yogurt pedaled by on their way to the main streets of the village.

We turned onto the main road that buses and big trucks used to transport big loads between Chau Doc and Long Xuyen. A little naked boy was playing with a stick on a brick wall a few feet from the road.

I noticed that many of the motorbikes only had a hand brake on the right handle and wondered why this was. I thought at first they only had a front brake, but saw that they did have a back brake. I thought that maybe the one handle operated both brakes, which is uncommon in America but might have been more common in a place where motorbikes were as plentiful as cars in America. It certainly allowed people to have a free left hand for talking on cell phones, which they did. I later realized that I had thrown out the idea of a foot brake when thinking about automatic transmission scooters, and that the rear brake was where it should be, on the right foot.

I saw a man with his canoe dry docked at the side of the road as he repaired leaks in the bottom of it. I wondered how common it was for them to sink.

After Late Night Alumni was done I put on Squirrel Nut Zippers and the song Good Enough for Granddad came on. It was probably my first time hearing it and it made me happy thinking about how my grandfather, who I never knew, traveled all over the world and was a happy man, and here I was traveling and happy too.

Out in the country We stopped at a village market to buy some things to take up Mt. Cam to a friend of Tien’s family. A man came by selling lottery tickets holding a small boy with no legs. At first I was sad that the boy had no legs, but then I thought about the NOFX song Nubs and thought that disabled people are just like every other person. Everybody has their problems and everybody can be happy. Disability isn’t something to rejoice in, but it’s not something to wallow in either.

As we approached Mt. Cam we passed several temples that looked like something you’d see in Thailand or Cambodia. There was writing in an alphabet that was like Thai or Khmer, which I can’t really distinguish, especially when they’re written ornately.

We stopped at the foot of the mountain after paying to enter the park and rested for a bit. I was wondering where we’d start hiking from, and then I began to wonder if we’d hike at all. Just like last time, guys on motorcycles were following us around talking and talking and talking. We ended up hiring them to take us to the top of the mountain and then we would walk back down, an idea I wasn’t completely happy with. As long as I got to hike though I’d be happy.

I got on the back of a bike with squeaky brakes and a broken speedometer and we headed up the steep incline that cuts across the side of Mt. Cam. Looking back, the green fields that stretched to the horizon last time I was here were replaced by endless pools of water cut into lines by rows of trees, as if the whole country was flooded. The country wasn’t flooded though. It’s always under water like this, you just can’t see it below the blades of rice leaves.

Monking around Mt. Cam Temple At the top, we went to the temple. Two boys met us and sold us some incense and began walking with us. Tien and Thu went inside to pray and I wanted in the bottom of the pagoda with Mai. When Tien and Thu returned we went onto the lawn by the pagoda, spread out a rain jacket and had a little picnic lunch. They had brought beer, 7up, bread, meat, soy sauce, fruits, chop sticks and sliced vegetables. We sat there and ate our lunch, throwing scraps of meat to the temple dogs that came wandering by. The two boys hung around, climbing on the handrail of the pagoda and chasing the bigger dogs away. Thu gave them some money and told them to get us some ice and cups for our drinks, and when they returned she gave them each an apple. I showed them some juggling with some rambutans and contact juggled their apples. They were happy boys that talked a lot. They had dark skin, probably from being outside all the time. Tien said that they would show us the way to a waterfall where we could swim.

After lunch we took off walking and the motorbike brigade swarmed around us again. Tien asked if we should take the motorbikes or hike, and since I was set on hiking I said we should hike and continued doing so. The girls straggled as the boy and I walked ahead, and eventually Tien decided to get the motorbikes to take us to the trailhead.

I thought we would lose the boy in the motorcycle exchange, but he managed to get on one of the bikes and was there at the trailhead leading the way down into the forest. He and I continued to set the pace down the trail while the girls walked behind us. The trail was a well traveled trail, maintained with steps leading down and trash everywhere. It ended up being more like a sidewalk through a stretched out village with stores scattered along the trail and people living in houses by the stores, just like any other Vietnamese village. People were rebuilding their stores, redoing the cement on the sidewalk, napping in hammocks, watching TV, and there were even a few old beggars singing songs at the side of the trail.

I was happy to be hiking. I could sometimes hear the creek in the forest to our right. The boy kept on talking as if I understood him. Tien said he was talking to me, saying things like “keep going, sir” and “just this way, sir.” Eventually he led us to a cascading waterfall with large rocks where people had built homes and stores next to. There were statues of rabbits and other animals, and a little heart at the edge of a rock. There was also a steep waterfall at the bottom and a few wires that you could use to attempt to save your own life with should you slip and slide towards your demise. We went away from that part to a higher area where there were two pools separated by a waterfall going down the side of a large rock.

She came in with all her clothes on As I was the only one dressed for hiking, so was I the only one dressed for swimming, but nonetheless Tien rolled up her pants unnecessarily and waded into the water up to her waist. We spent a long while playing in the water, taking pictures and having fun. I fell down the waterfall bruising my foot and palm and gashing a hole in my left heel, but I didn’t care much. I just had the boy fetch me a beer and drank it while sitting in the pool of water.

After we were rested and cooled off we headed down the trail once again. There were lots of dogs along the way, and lots of puppies. I saw a rooster eating off the counter in an open kitchen. We soon stopped again where some men were reclining in hammocks watching football. When I say “football” I mean what Americans call soccer. America seems to be the only country that doesn’t call it football.

We sat at a table and a happy woman brought me iced coffee. Tien asked her for some bandaids for my barely bleeding foot. I migrated to a hammock for a while and everybody thought I would break it. A while later the woman invited us into her home. We went with her to the back where her house met the waterfalls and sat on the rocks eating grapefruit and looking out over the tree tops at the infinite pool of water stretching beyond the mountain to the horizon. It was a nice home, and her family was nice. Her son was a monk from the temple on top of the mountain.

After a while of sitting and eating we bid them farewell and headed off down the trail again. There were still more dogs, many of them pregnant. I wondered what kind of predators lived in the woods that were above these dogs on the food chain.

A while later I saw a motorbike on the trail and knew we were back at the bottom. Our guide boy stayed near us until we left, and I felt a little pained leaving the boy behind even though that was his home.

Sunset over An Giang The ride home was mostly vocal trance and sunset seen from the back of a motorbike. Water was everywhere, and school children were on their way home. I saw some of them gathered at the side of the road waiting for a small ferry that was pulling up to the shore getting ready to lower a walkway for them to board.

Back at home we sat and rested and Tien nursed my bruises and bug bites with a solve-all ointment that they always have handy. That night we sleep soundly.

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.