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.

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.

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.

Hanging in Saigon, choosing Binh Hoa over Nha Trang

On May 12 Tien and I got an early breakfast and decided to walk down to the river. It looked nicer on the map than it actually was, due to construction and heavy traffic, but it was nice all the same. We ran into an Australian couple and asked them to take our picture, then chatted about traveling Vietnam for a while. They said they were staying at the foot of a very large, impressive skyscraper that was being built nearby that I’d been talking about with Tien earlier. It’s a financial tower, and I was talking about how its presence will definitely change the surrounding areas, which were already showing a heavy western influence.

We found a cafe and sat for a while, watching Hero, drinking smoothies and playing with the iPad. The walk back to the hotel was longer than I’d remembered, and by the time we got there it was time for lunch. We went back to the restaurant we’d eaten lunch at the day before and this time I took time to scrutinize the menu a bit more. It had some very interesting things, to say the least… Sauted [sic] noodle w. 3 special objects, Cow marrow ommelette [sic], Sauted [sic] ox pennis [sic] w. Satay, Grilled bloody clam w. fat & green onion, and Grilled crocodile file [sic] w. fish sauce were some of the highlights.

We watched a movie, then went out for doughnuts. They gave us a receipt.

On the way back I saw a lingerie store with two half naked mannequins in the front window. A sign read “50% off.” Indeed.

As we entered the hotel the man at the front desk lowered his cell phone, which he was holding facing the door, and greeted us. It was interesting because I’d seen him do that before and thought he might be taking our picture. Also of note was that nobody at the hotel was familiar. Tien had gotten to know the staff before and they recognized us every time, but this time nobody knew us, and here was some guy doing something potentially creepy. It weirded me out and I mentioned it to Tien in the elevator.

On May 13 we headed to our usual breakfast spot and sat upstairs looking down on the intersection. I watched all the different people passing by and thought about all the different ways of life in Saigon, and the world in general. I wondered which of my friends would enjoy coming to Saigon and which would have a hard time adjusting. Tien and I talked a lot about cultural differences and how hard it is to give people insight into what a foreign place is actually like, and I said I couldn’t really think of much to show her what American culture would be like.

The original plan was for us to take off to Vung Tau, Mui Ne or Nha Trang for a while, but we decided to go back to her hometown and then go off to Ha Tien beach instead, so we booked a bus home and headed out. The bus driver was really fast and we expected the trip to only last 4.5 hours. The music was loud and there was an intermittent sound of one of those really irritating alarm clocks. We also passed the scene of a motorbike wreck that had just happened. Fluids were still flowing across the highway from the mangled wreckage and a bleeding man was in the arms of another man on the back of a motorbike that was just taking off down the highway.

When we came upon the wreck, Tien had been in the middle of telling me a joke, which she told like this…

“There was a blue and a red monkey sitting in a tree. The blue monkey jumped into the river, which one was left?”
“The blue one.”
“No, that would be too easy.”
“WTF, is that the joke?”
“People here think it’s funny!”
“I think it’s retarded, that’s not remotely funny. So that’s the punchline? ‘No, that would be too easy’?”
“No.”
“Then how does it go??”
“There’s a blue monkey and a red monkey sitting in a tree. The red one jumped into the river, which one is left?”
“The blue one…”
“Nope, the right one.”
“WTF, that doesn’t make any sense.”
“No, it’s the opposite!”
“The opposite of what…? Left? Wrong?”
“No, of wet.”
“Right is not the opposite of wet. Dry is.”
“Oh, yeah, the dry one.”
“…”

It took us 2 hours to get to the other side of the big bridge in Tan Hoa, something I’d never timed before but wanted to do because it always seems to take forever to get from there to Saigon. There was a cute little kid sitting ahead of us that I’d been playing with from time to time. He was really shy, but he warmed up to me and began playing little games with me. Then he began spitting, and all the sudden he wasn’t cute at all anymore. He was just a rude little bastard that I wanted to smack. I didn’t though, and eventually his mom did so for me and made him behave.

Right as we left Long Xuyen heading for Binh Hoa it began to rain heavily. We passed two people on a motorbike and sprayed them with water, and to top it off, one of the employees on the bus opened his window, pointed at them and laughed at their misfortune. I found this doubly hilarious.

I started adjusting my things to get ready to get off the bus, when I noticed that my wallet was missing all of the US dollars that had been in it. When they were in it, I don’t remember, but they were missing then. All that I knew was that my wallet had been in my pocket since we left the hotel, and that meant that somebody at the Ruby Star had been the one who took it. Maybe that creep with the cell phone, maybe the cleaning staff, I’ll probably never find out. I’ll probably never go back to the Ruby Star either.

It was right as soon as I settled on that when we realized the bus had missed the stop in Binh Hoa and was crossing over the bridge into the neighborhood on the other side of the river. Tien argued a little with the bus folks and they ended up dropping us off on the other side of the bridge where rain water was flooding a business at the side of the road. We crossed to a cafe on the drier side of the road and got some coffee. Tien’s sister was busy fighting a leak in the roof of her new house and said she’d come get us when the rain stopped.

Tien and I sat and talked a while with the family who owned the shop. They wanted to talk to me and asked a lot of questions about where I was from, how we knew each other, and said I was handsome. This tends to be the standard set of interaction between Tien, me and interested strangers. She thinks it’s remarkable how everybody says I’m handsome, but I think it’s probably just custom.

There was also a family next door to the coffee shop who knew Tiens family, so we went over there and visited for a few minutes before Tien’s brother and sister showed up on two motorbikes to take us back to the village.

We arrived at Thu’s house, which I had never seen before, and relaxed with the family, finally home. We ate some doughnuts that we’d bought in Saigon, and some chocolate I had brought from America, and tried to find batteries for a remote controlled helicopter that I’d brought as a joking gift for Tien that stemmed from a conversation we’d had online about flying over the puddles. The helicopter ended up being a lot of fun though and I’m glad I brought it. It wasn’t nearly as entertaining as the Wii that I brought though. Tien said she doesn’t know anybody in Vietnam who has a Wii, and had never seen one before I showed it to her online a few weeks back.

Back to Vietnam in 2010

Friday, May 7th was my last day working my contract at GWOS. I had thought my contract ended a week earlier, and had bought a plane ticket for that timeframe. That detail was an oversight on my part, and it cost me nearly the price of a plane ticket just to get it switched. Honestly though I was happy to work the extra week because projects were coming together and I got a lot of work done that week. My boss Dr. Dave Blunt was on vacation in New Zealand, so on Friday I trained a temp guy to pick up some of the slack while another co-worker, Thomas Stocking, was going to be handling the bulk of the IT duties. A few of my co-workers invited me into Thomas’s office for a glass of fine scotch to finish the work day off.

After work I got in my car and headed to REI to pick up a hat and a light colored, long sleeved shirt, two things that are priceless in SE Asia.  I didn’t immediately notice that the hat, like my backpack I’d bought for my first trip, was made in Vietnam.

For dinner I grabbed sushi with Blake and Lily on Castro St, and after that I drove down to Lila’s house to stay with her family for a while. I spent a lot of time there playing on the iPad with Maks and trying to find the best way to pack some gifts for my trip. The best way ended up being to keep my expensive and fragile things in my backpack while putting heavy and liquid things into a cardboard box for check-in at the airport.

32::AM::118The How Weird Street Faire was on Mother’s day, which was Sunday, and I had planned to go but ended up not being able to make it. That’s my favorite SF electronica festival, but it just wasn’t going to fit into my schedule and it wasn’t high enough priority for me to really make it happen. Getting packed for my trip and making sure I had everything I needed was my main focus the last few days. Late Sunday night Lila and Maks dropped me off at SFO. Check in was easy, but the last bar closed at 11pm and I was just a few minutes too late to get any service, so I ended up waiting at the gate, tired but trying to stay awake for the last few hours.

Just after 1am on May 10th, China Airlines flight 3 from SFO to Taipei boarded, and it would be the most uncomfortable international flight I’d ever taken. The plane was shoddy, the seat was uncomfortable, the food was bad, there were crying babies, there was what seemed like a VHS tape hooked to a 1990′s projection style TV for us to watch a movie on, and no personal entertainment systems on each chair (which was fine by me anyway, those things all suck.) On top of that, I had an aisle seat so people kept running by and brushing my arm or leaning against me to let other people pass.

I slept for most of the flight. I thought about watching a movie on my iPad, or listening in on the in-flight movie, but remembered that it is disconnecting and weird to lose myself in a fictitious plot when I’ve got my own new story going.

I remembered that I’d forgotten to pick up a travel bug to take to Asia. Oh well. Next time.

One good thing I’ll say is that the coffee was good. I think I like Asian coffee more than what we usually get in America. I’d have traded the better than average coffee for a comfortable seat though.

The in-flight GPS display came up on the big screen and showed that we had just flown over almost all of Japan. It then switched to a display of “breathing exercises for relaxation” where a girl was sitting calmly on a chair at the end of a dock on a mirror lake with what looked like Mt. Fuji in the background, though I suspect it was some Chinese mountain. 32::AM::120 - 45 minutes at the Taipei AirportThe video had just begun to explain to us how to relax when the girl was torn from her serene location by static and color glitches commonly seen when you pause a VHS tape. The captain had an announcement.

We landed in an overcast Taipei that was mostly unremarkable. What I could see of the airport outside was foreign and neat, but beyond it was just familiar green vegetation and grey skies. I spent no more than 45 minutes there before being seated on flight CI0781 to Saigon. Maybe I’ll go back for a longer visit some day…

Preparing for my third Asia trip

Time spent on San Francisco trainsRight now I’m on the L-Taraval on my way to the sunset. Rob is in new York looking for a place to live and I’m crashing at his place while he’s gone.

I just finished a crazy, long day at work with network config, server upgrades, Linux active directory authentication problems relating to a windows server meltdown that also caused DNS and VPN meltowns. This infrastructure is not exactly high availability.  It started at 6am and here at 10pm it’s almost over… On top of that I managed to work out the details of a landing visa for my trip to saigon next week and line up a small crew for how weird this Sunday.

It’s such a foreign world here in SF compared to the remote Mekong farm village where Tien grew up and is staying these days. I love technology, and I need to make money, but I have to find a balance.

I need immigration to approve Tiens visa.  It’s been over five months since I last saw Tien, which is a long time to go without seeing anybody, let alone your fiancé. Too long.

Last weekend I went to San Jose for Sadeks birthday and caught up with a ton of folks I hadn’t seen in a long time. I’ve managed to fit in quite a few good visits in my last few weeks here, though unfortunately a few have not come through.

It’s strange to consider the levels of anticipation between my trips. The first time I left I was burned out on work, going into the unknown ready for whatever. The second time I was lovestruck and impatient for things to move on freely. This time I seem exhausted and underwhelmed. I’ve been so focused on projects at work and dealing with the details that I feel like I’ve lost touch with the joys that I’m pursuing.  When I stop to think about the situation I am either emotionally swelled with missing Tien or incredibly frustrated and nearly broken over this ridiculous US immigration saga.

I need a vacation, that’s for sure. Maybe I’ll go back to Nha Trang…

It’s weird to think back to a time when I cared where I slept at night.

Catching up from Vietnam to Telegraph Hill

The View from The RoofMuch has happened since last time I wrote. I’m currently living at 425 Green Street on Telegraph Hill, but will be returning to Vietnam to be with Tien in two weeks. Before I get into the present and future, I should probably dive into what’s been going on since I got back to America.

Look Ma, no hands!When I got back from Vietnam in Nov , I spent a few days here in America, had Thanksgiving with my friends Rob and Nicki, then drove to Colorado. The drive was tough because I was of weather and because I was pretty tired. I even slept for several hours in my car at the side of the road, but that didn’t help much. I80 East on Donner Pass, Colorado bound I finally arrived in Silverthorne Colorado where my sister was spending the holiday weekend with her husband’s side of the family. We went sledding and ate leftovers and I got to talk to a lot of people I had never met or hadn’t seen in a long time, like Tom Tonelli, Tom Burns, and Holly. I spent the night there and left the next afternoon to continue on to Colorado Springs.

I got pulled over for speeding by the police in South Park. The officer was really nice and let me go even though my California plates were expired and I had no proof of insurance. This was an extra nice gesture since most police were on edge this day due to an event that had happened earlier where a man walked into a coffee shop in Washington State and opened fire on some police officers.

Me and my four niecesI spent the next month in Colorado with friends and family. I caught up with Jake and Rachel, who had just bought a new house, my brother, who was now back from Iraq and out of the Army, Aimee Rich, who I hadn’t seen almost since high school, and a whole bunch of other folks from Colorado Springs. I spent several days in Littleton with my sister and nieces, which was great because it seems like I don’t often spend long periods of time staying with them. While I was in Littleton I finally met up Bridgepix, a fantastic photographer and master of HDR.

Dan Fava, December 2009 Helen, December 2009I went to Aurora and stayed with Dan and Cass at their place for a few days. They took me out to a nice dinner and then to a The Clocktower Cabaret burlesque show that was really entertaining and fun.  They also had a little get together and my good buddy Nathan showed up and we all played the new Super Mario Wii game, which is highly addicting. After that I met up with an old friend Helen who is a fellow world traveler and another person who I hadn’t seen in years.

Padre's 100On December 2nd my dad called from the hospital and said he had a tiny accident. Actually, he had had a pretty big accident involving ice, a stairwell with no handrail, a rock shaped like a pyramid and his head. It ended up with 100 stitches and him high as a kite on pain killers. I went to get Jeff in my car to pick up my dad’s truck from where he left it before being carted off in an ambulance, but on my way to pick up Jeff my car window rolled down and wouldn’t roll back up. The fun part of the day ended hereCold weather and stupid cars be damned. Luckily Jeff Foster’s room mate Jeff Chamberlain is a car mechanic and was available for an hour or so to whip my window back into somewhat working shape.

On December 15th my brother and I got his car stuck in the snow by The Crags and had to shovel snow with the police for like 8 hours, well into the night.

EmilyOn the 19th Jeff and Chelise hosted a Christmas party at their house. I met some new folks and caught up with some old friends there.

G and MissySince my family usually celebrates Christmas late because it’s easier to schedule, my brother and I have a tradition of going hiking on Christmas day. We continued this tradition, meeting up with Gerald and his girlfriend Loridna and her dog Misty.

Wine Jug LampI actually had way too much free time on my trip. The weather was terrible and I had continual schedule conflicts with people. I worked on some projects like the christmas light wine bottle lamps for gifts and some whitebox product style photography. Christmas was fun. Tien joined my family over Skype from Vietnam since she was still in Vietnam.

Upside DonnerOn the 28th I headed out of town for that long drive back to San Francisco. It’s funny how the details of such a long drive can disappear completely. I do remember sleeping in my car in the middle of a snow storm in the middle of nowhere. I also remember getting to Donner Pass and being refused passage because I had no snow tires or chains, so I had to wait for a few hours for the weather to get better.

ForistaWhen I got back to San Francisco I headed to BLT’s place and met up with Donna, who happened to be in town.  I spent the next month and a half there, subletting a room from Brianna who was trying to save money. Blake’s buddy Scotty was in from Denver and we hung out for most of New Years Eve, but I ended up retiring early this year.Terresina Polizzi, January 2010

I spent most of January trying to figure out how to get my photography rolling on a serious, profitable path. I did some marketing work for Tara at GroundWork, but other than that it was all charity work and portfolio building with Terresina.

Wil SinclairFor the second half of Feb Lila and Wil let me stay with them, which is always wonderful. I was running short on cash and needed to make some money quickly. I hadn’t had a steady job in 9 months. Julian Ostrow on the guitarOn top of that, I had some car repairs that needed to be done. My mechanics was right next to Julian and Sadek’s place, so I took the opportunity to stay with them for a few days and catch up. It was good times like when we all used to work together.

32::AM::99At the beginning of March Tara referred me to an IT position at her company.  It fit my schedule perfectly, and I managed to land that and get my current sublet on Telegraph Hill for the same amount of time within a day of each other, so for the past month and a half I’ve been back to the daily grind of 9-5 IT work, catching up on finances and patiently waiting for immigration to contact Tien about when she will get her K-1 visa interview.

Dan Lopez, March 2010HanikI’ve had some good social times in there, but no traveling. In fact, I don’t even drive my car anymore except to move it from one street cleaning zone to another every week or so. My friend Dan Lopez hired me to photograph him for some media stuff he had coming up with Linux.com. I finally met up with Hanik, a local house DJ that my friend Jonathan knows.  SugarCon was this week, so I caught up with some old friends there, and also happened to run into Chris Nojima on Market Street.

A few days ago my good friend Rob got hired on at Boxee and will be moving to New York, so that will surely be a trip I will be taking in the next year.

I bought an iPad after a lot of back and forth and waiting a few weeks from its release. I’ve always loved the tech, and always wanted a tablet, but aside from that I think it will be very useful on my trip.  It fits my travel needs, which are pretty lightweight compared to what I do with my laptop, and I can probably sell it in Vietnam for a profit since they aren’t for sale there yet.

32::AM::91At the beginning of the month I had called USCIS about the status of Tien’s visa, and they referred me to the US Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. I contacted them via e-mail, their preferred method, but never heard back. I called them after a week and a half, but they said they couldn’t answer questions over the phone. Luckily Tien is living in Saigon now, so a few days ago she went down there and discovered that they had sent her interview letter in February, but it just hadn’t arrived. This was both good and bad. It sucks that we’ve wasted two months, but also in that time I’ve been able to make some money and some good business contacts.

Today I began shifting back into traveler mode, focusing on what technology I need to bring on my trip, how to go about packing my day-to-day things back up, and things of that nature.  I have exactly two weeks to finish my job and move out of my apartment.

My plan is to travel to Vietnam and see my fiancé who I haven’t touched in 144 days. We’ll travel north to Hanoi and Ha Long, and hopefully hit Danang and Hue on the way back south, then return to her home town to see her family. I’m thinking we may go to Ha Tien beach, and maybe to the island of Phu Quoc that we had considered going to last time.

That being said, now that we’re back in touch with NVC things could change, especially if Tien gets her visa interview soon. Either way, I’m planning to return to my where my girl is and live happily ever after with her by my side, not 8,000 miles away in a country on the other side of the planet.

Leaving Vietnam in 2009

Nov 24th was my last day in Vietnam in 2009. My stomach was a little upset, probably from some meds I was still taking for my lingering strep throat, which echoed from my last trip home to the USA.

Tien’s sisters had prepared some gifts for my family and it was a puzzle trying to fit everything into my backpack. We managed to get everything fit in, though in less of a modular fashion that I would’ve liked. I try to leave my laptop and camera easily accessible right at the top of my bag, but that wasn’t possible this time because of some very odd shapes. We settled with that though and then took a nap, trying to get a head start on rest since my flight left Saigon at 6am which meant we had to travel all night.

It’s always interesting trying to find ways to kill that last unknown bit of time before the bus shows up, and this time around I loaded up Tien’s netbook with snes9x and all the ROMs I had. Tien’s nieces had never played SNES before, but they also didn’t read english. i tried to show them how to work the emulator but hand gestures were again exhausted and I’m sure they didn’t get everything I was trying to show them. I made a note to bring them back some USB controllers so they could play together without having to share the keyboard.

The drive to saigon was the same as always except our driver was notable bad. We arrived in Saigon at 2am, practically asleep. In fact, we did sleep for a while on a bench in some garage at some transit stop where the bus had ended up. I wasn’t sure what exactly the place was, but it didn’t look like a travel agency. A man offered to give us a ride to the airport, which was nice, but he dropped us off right outside the airport instead of taking us inside so we had to catch another taxi the last 1km.

It was 3:15am when we finally got to the airport. I left Tien with my bag outside and went inside to check into my flight, which took less than 5 minutes. Tien, Thu and I sat around outside visiting for the last bit of my trip, taking photos and trying to stay awake.

When it came time for me to go, Tien and I embraced one last time and she melted into my arms. I tried to be strong and positive, but nothing prepares me for that sense of disconnection when I let go of her hand and walked away, realizing that I was then separated by a growing time and distance. It only lasted a minute though, because I had to be ready to navigate immigration and the security checkpoints.

Security was easy this time around, but required a mandatory bag inspection at the gate. This was so inconvenient after the puzzle of packing that stuff into my bag, but I managed to the contents back in with little fuss. My flight left on time, and after sleeping most of the flight away I had a beautiful and clear view of Japan on our descent into Narita. Japan is an absolutely beautiful country and I really want to go explore it some day.

I got online for a while in Narita and chatted with some folks back home. I would be arriving in San Francisco only a few hours date-wise after my departure from Saigon because of the time difference, meaning I flew out at 6am and would be landing at 8am. Kyung asked me to pick him up some Japanese kit-kat’s, and I got some mochi for Lila. I also jumped on skype and re-activated my AT&T cell phone so I would have mobile internet as soon as I landed in the USA.

On the plane to America I was seated next to a scholarly looking Japanese girl. She was studying law of some sort and asked me to keep the window shut because she was allergic to sunlight. I had ever intent of sleeping the majority of the flight away and had no qualms keeping the window closed. Usually, in fact, the flight attendants ask you to do so. I soon fell asleep listening to Kaskade, and the sleep was welcome to my confused body that probably was ready to sleep at any time of the day or night.

When I woke up I started listening to an Audiobook I had picked up, The Forever War. It wasn’t really gripping me though and I found myself struggling to follow the story rather than let my own imagination wander away. I wondered why they didn’t have audiobooks as one of the features of on-plane entertainment, and for that matter why they didn’t have podcasts. This was the terrible entertainment system from my previous flight overseas though, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the whole thing broke down to colored bars.

I put some music back on and began to wake up more, thinking about what I’d do in America. I became inspired to get my shit back on track, to do great things, to return to work and resume making money. I had taken so much time off in the last few months and was feeling an insatiable desire to get back to creative construction of art and technology. I decided to hit life hard.

Blake came and picked me up at SFO and took me down to Cupertino where Lila had my car. We went to Sugar and found my key on Lila’s desk, but she wasn’t there, so the two of us headed down to Barefoot Coffee to pacify my craving for western coffee. Barefoot is the best place to do this, by the way, because it’s probably the best coffee shop I’ve been to in the world. After western coffee the next order of business was to get a proper mexican lunch, which is another thing I can’t seem to find outside of North America. Kyung and Chris met us at Tres Potrillos in Sunnyvale and we all caught up on travels, technological bs, life and whatnot. It was great to be back with my friends in Silicon Valley.

We all went our separate ways and I headed up to Lila’s house to pick up some things I’d left there. Every time I get to her house I don’t want to leave because it’s so peaceful and beautiful, but somehow it seems that almost every time I get to her house I’m in a hurry to go somewhere else.

The drive to SF was nice, as always, and obviously very familiar since I’d done it hundreds of times before. It never gets old though, 280 between Cupertino and San Francisco is one of the most beautiful highways in America. When I got to SF my storage unit was closed, which sucked but wasn’t really a big deal. I also checked my post office box and retrieved my month’s worth of mail which did not include the receipt for Tien’s visa petition, known in the immigration community as NOA1. Later I would call them on the phone and find out that they had in fact sent it and everything was rolling along fine.

I headed a few blocks down to Crossroads Cafe where I had met the SF Flickr Social crew before my trip. It’s a quiet spot with cheap drinks and good parking. There’s no internet though, so I was happy that I’d hacked my iPhone and gotten tethering to work. Lily called me and then came down to meet me. I packed up and we went a few blocks over to Nova to get some drinks.

On our walk from the car we saw a man whose motorcycle had fallen and knocked two other motorcycles over.

It was good to see her and she caught me up to speed on a lot of the things going on in SF and in her life. She was actually on her way out of town so after a drink and a conversation I dropped her off at the BART station and headed over to the coast.

I sat there at the beach for a while, thinking about my position. No job, no home, nowhere in particular to be. This was freedom, but sometimes freedom comes with emptiness. Freedom longs for aspiration because without it stagnation pools. I didn’t want to be stagnant, but I was so exhausted I wasn’t exactly inspired either. Honestly I just wanted to chill out and relax for a while.

I called Rob and then rolled over to his house. He had just got a pizza and was ready to watch Inglorious Basterds in 1080p, and that was exactly the kind of night I was looking for. American cinema, beer and pizza with my amigo. The movie was beautiful, though a bit drawn out, but all in all it was a great time.

I headed back to the BLT’s house and nobody was home. That night I slept for 14 hours.

Strep Throat in Nha Trang, Back to Saigon by Train

Friday, Nov 20th, I woke early to a very rainy and stormy morning. Having less than a week left I decided to go ahead and figure out my plan for when I arrived back in America. Some of my friends were online since it was evening in the USA, and I figured out that I’d spend a few days in SF and then drive to CO just after Thanksgiving to spend some time with my family.

Tien was sleeping while I figured all of this out, and I was touched with a magic that so many other people in history have been touched with, that of being simply alive and doing normal activities while their love slept next to them, peaceful and in their own little dream world. It is a great joy being able to unobtrusively observe a peace that is completely independent from yourself. It’s almost like a third person perspective on your own joy, because that person is such a part of the happy parts of your own life but at that moment they are detached from the waking realities, such as being ill while on a stormy weathered vacation.

I did some research online and figured that I probably had strep throat, or a number of other more terrible things. The medicines I had been taking were mostly ineffective, but not entirely. At least I had been taking the recommended pain reliever, tylenol.

We had pho for breakfast at our dark alley pho place, which wasn’t so dark during daylight, and decided to go ahead and go to the Vinpearl since we wanted to do something wonderful on this otherwise ruined trip to Nha Trang. We went back to the hotel to pack up some things to take and instead of going we fell asleep. When I woke up I had a fever of probably about 102, which was just a guess compared to a measurement we would take after getting a thermometer.

I got online and told my bother about my sickness. Tien and I had managed to take a decent photograph of my throat and I sent it to him. Having been a medic in the Army stationed in Iraq he had seen plenty of sore throats. He took one look at the photo and recommended penicillin saying it was probably strep throat. The diagnosis was inconclusive without a lab test, but he said that no matter what I was diagnosed with they would put me on penicillin, so it didn’t really matter what I had.

I sent Tien down to the local pharmacy to get some meds and she managed to score some penicillin, which apparently is not a prescription drug in Vietnam. She also got some of other recommended medicine and a thermometer that we used to verify my fever. Needless to say we did not go to the Vinpearl and instead spent the evening inside with Tien quiet and worrying about me. I kept trying to make jokes and talk while she was caring for me but she thought I was delirious from my fever and just worried even more.

Eventually we both went to sleep, but having slept most of the day I was unable to sleep the whole night. I woke up at 2:45 and couldn’t sleep. I took some more meds and found my temperature to be 100. I stayed up for about an hour playing on my computer before I managed to become tired enough to get back to sleep. Tien later told me that she had drifted into consciousness and had seen me playing on the computer, but thought it was a dream and went back to sleep.

When I woke up the next morning it was 8am and I had no fever. After breakfast we figured out our travel plans to return to Saigon and spent the rest of the morning waiting for the train in our hotel room watching Terminator. Tien had never seen it before and she was pretty intrigued by it. I didn’t go into the fact that the robot who had traveled back in time to kill this woman was also the person who was running the state of California where she would be living within a year.

When we were checking out of our hotel the woman at the front desk chatted with us a bit and asked me to bring a man back from America for her. I chuckled, half out of politeness and half out of amusement that so many people in Vietnam say things like that.

We took a taxi to the train station and found that the train was delayed over an hour. There wasn’t much to do or eat at the train station so we wandered down the street carrying our bags and found a restaurant that looked good but ended up being pretty awful. I longed for yelp.vn so I could write a bad review of the place.

Blue Train in Nha Trang We returned to the train station and waited some more. I went to use the bathroom and the mens room was unavailable. The women’s room had no light and there was a lot of liquid on the floor, and who knows what else since it was dark.

When we finally got on the train the first thing I noticed was that it was pretty dirty. The seats were also pretty run down and rickety, but were actually pretty comfortable. Once we started rolling it was great though, so much more enjoyable than the bus. We didn’t get many great vistas, but we did pass a lot of beautiful landscape that I would love to photograph. Some of the landscape looked like jungle, but there were also mountains with rocks that reminded me of Colorado and Wyoming.

We played cards for a long time and listened to music. There was also the standard television entertainment. I saw an ad for a slim TV that was only like 18″ thick and was amused. A few weeks later I would go to a best buy with Dan Fava and find a television that was less than 2″ thick.

We rolled slowly into Saigon that night and got a new view of city life from the window of that train passing behind buildings, looking into bars and apartments and restaurants that we hadn’t seen before. I wished I had a camera that was better at photographing in darkness because there were some really awesome scenes visible from that window.

Tired from our travels, we did the usual routine of finding a taxi to drop us off at the Ruby Star.

Another sick day in Nha Trang

On the morning of November 19th I was just as sick as I had been the previous day, and my throat hurt just a little bit worse. We spent the morning laying around surfing the internet and being generally lazy. The weather was still a little stormy too, pretty much exactly as it had been the previous day. We had pho for breakfast at the same place we’d gone the previous night, and would continue eating there almost exclusively for the remainder of our stay in Nha Trang.

After breakfast we decided to take a walk down the beach to get some fresh air and some sun. Tien was trying to convince me that mid-day sunlight was terrible for you whereas morning and evening sunlight was good for you. I tried to explain that sunlight is both good and bad for you, depending on how much of it you get. I’m not really an authority in that area though, so I suppose I could’ve been wrong, but I’d never heard anything leading me to conclude that mid-
day sun was worse.

We walked down the beach the opposite direction and found a bunch of wooden beach chairs under little wooden huts. We sat at one but were quickly told that it cost 100k for a day to rent one, so we kept walking. It began to rain lightly but with heavy wind, so we retreated to a nearby gazebo where other people were doing the same. We sat there for a while and the weather didn’t relent, but luckily a woman came wandering by trying to sell fruits. We somehow managed to get into an argument about what fruits we were going to buy, I guess she thought we could eat a whole pineapple along with 3 mangoes and countless other fruits. Sometime I’m amazed at how easy it is for Vietnamese people to make each other feel guilty for breaking agreements that were never even made. In the end we got a good selection of fruit for a decent price, if only because I had the money and I wasn’t going to buy shit if she kept trying to sell me fruit I didn’t want.

As we were sitting in the gazebo eating our fruit, another woman came by trying to sell us cigarettes and all sorts of other things we didn’t want. She was persistent and stayed there a while. All of the sudden a huge terrible breaking sound came from behind us. We turned around to see a large coconut rolling across the grass away from large pieces of broken tile. I would later learn that coconut injuries are more common in Vietnam than auto injuries.

I was beginning to get fatigued again, and really irritated that I had gotten sick in Nha Trang since we’d been waiting so long to get there. We headed back to the hotel and laid around all day as I gobbled up medicine and we both geeked out on the ever frustrating and intermittent wifi we leeched from the hotel next door.

Having read a few articles in The Onion about National Awareness Month and an article making fun of a man for defending what he believed the constitution to be, I realized that I was pretty ignorant of what the constitution really said and really a lot of other things that I’d grown up believing that I had yet to verify. Generally I felt a lot like the ignorant, misinformed people that irked me in political and religious arguments. With nothing to do in the middle of the night, I decided to go ahead and read the constitution. I didn’t get very far into it because I kept getting side-tracked reading context and related information, but I must say that I did learn a lot and it was incredibly eye-opening.

We got some dinner and slept away the night, and I was still frustrated about being sick, hoping I’d be well the next day so Tien and I could enjoy our vacation.

White Sands and our arrival in Nha Trang

Tuesday morning we woke up with the intent to go to some white sand dunes that were about 20km north. We got breakfast at a place just up the road on our way. There was a modeling show on TV and I was watching it to see what gear the photographers were using. They were interviewing the models a lot and I wondered what they were talking about. I guessed that the show was in English, but the sound was down and drown out by really loud Vietnamese music.

Tiny Trees Over breakfast we talked about our plans and decided to go straight to Nha Trang instead of stopping along the way at some temples. Tien wasn’t excited about our bad luck finding things to do in Mui Ne, and since the second place we had planned to go was pretty remote she expected it to be much of the same.

Back on the road, we headed off into unexplored territory that looked not much like what I’d seen in Vietnam before. I caught the scent of a Colorado summer in the air. We saw a lot of farm animals, including geese that were hanging out with cows and goats and water buffalo. We passed by a lot of sand and the landscape turned into rolling hills with trees scattered around it, much like the high Colorado prairies.At the lake's edgeThe road turned into dirt and sand mixed together and the motorbike became a bit wobbly because of the sand shifting under the bald tires. We could see the white sands in the distance on the far side of a lake by a small forest.

We eventually made it to a spot where a few motorbikes and jeeps were valeted at a little shack, so we did the same and began walking through some trees next to the lake that was at the foot of the white sands, through some shops, past some other tourists and up towards the sand dunes. A kid followed us much like the two from the night before, asking us to rent his sled and pointing things out to us.

Tien at White Sands We walked around a bit, but sand is sand so there wasn’t really much to see. We took some photos and the kid kept asking if we wanted him to take our picture. Eventually I conceded, thinking he might charge us for it. He took two, then had us stand somewhere else and took two more. When I looked at them I was very pleasantly surprised at his composition, each pose taking one wide and one close shot. I tipped him a few thousand dong and we headed back to our bike. He trailed behind and complained endlessly in Vietnamese that the money I gave him wasn’t clean enough and he wouldn’t be able to use it to buy cake.

Tien had driven on the way out so I got to drive on the way home. This was my first time in like 12 years riding a motorcycle on dirt. We quickly sank our rear tire in a spot where I had gotten off to walk before. We both laughed and Tien got off so I could wobble my way up out of the sand and across to where the dirt was solid again.

As we headed back the way we came, over the rolling hills and through a pretty countryside I thought again about buying a motorcycle one of these days so we could just cruise the countryside at our own pace, not having to rely on buses. I also changed my mind about Mui Ne being a lame place to go, it’s pretty nice outside of town in the countryside.

Resting in oceanic peace There was a herd of cattle that had been grazing in a field where there were many graves marked with swastikas, a symbol of power and not of Nazi affiliation, and now these cattle were taking up the whole road. I squeezed by and then stopped and watched a big truck make its way by, something I wasn’t sure would be easy for it to do.

When we arrived back at the hotel we returned the bike, packed and checked out, but our bus wasn’t coming for two hours. There was a warm breeze coming in through large open windows and blowing around the chandeliers in the lobby where the Internet was still broken. Tien and I decided to go wait by the beach. There were no hammocks, which was a disappointment, but we found a little table to sit at and enjoy some drinks while playing cards with the ocean waves breaking about 50 feet away. Tien kicked my ass at the game I had taught her, I only won twice.

_DSC7629We got one last meal in Mui Ne, then went upstairs to wait for the bus. I explained photographic composition and exposure to Tien while we were waiting, but had to finish the discussion on the bus.

After exhausting the topic of photography I realized I forgot my headphones in my backpack which was stored in the cargo area. This was a pretty bad thing to do since I was then forced to endure the most epic movie I’d ever seen and then hours of loud Vietnamese theatrical comedy.

The bus had headed north beyond the white sand dunes, introducing us to even more beautiful countryside and coastline. The bus was comfortable too so it was an enjoyable ride. We even stopped for 15 minutes at the first rest stop I’d seen that had Internet access. My iPhone GPS worked too, which kinda made sense because we were near Da Lat and it had worked there. It continued to work as we headed north and I wondered if the norh of Vietnam had the mobile infrastructure to accommodate the retarded assisted GPS in the iPhone. After all, my phone hadn’t been unlocked when I was in Hanoi, so I wasn’t sure it didn’t work there.

It began to rain right at dusk. I also began to feel sick in my throat. I had been feeling a few symptoms once in a while for the past day or so, but this was the first real evidence that I was coming down with something.

When we got to Nha Trang it was still raining lightly. As I was getting into a hotel shuttle I noticed a motorbike stashed in the cargo area of a bus, a brilliant idea that I wouldn’t have expected to be permitted.

We checked into a hotel that I’d seen reviewed somewhere online, The Manchester. Our room was on the sixth floor with an ocean view and deplorable wifi access.

On our walk to find dinner, just when I thought we’d gone the wrong way from restaurants we came across an authentic Italian restaurant where two men were talking loudly in Italian. After sitting down an older Italian man, the cook, came out to introduce the specials and show us the list of Italian wines. I got the chefs special and as I sipped my wine I pulled out my iPhone and found an Actiontec wireless network. It almost felt like we were sitting in Sunnyvale.

Traveling to Mui Ne

Sunday morning when I woke up I noticed a recurring morning phenomenon; stiff ankles. I thought about how I should probably stay more active to avoid that displeasure.

Right after waking up Tien called a bus service and found a bus going to Saigon at 9:30. Thu got us some hot breakfast from the market while we packed. We ate and headed off by bus. We were still unsure about the train schedule and availability and decided just to head to a travel agency in Pham Ngu Lao and see what we could find.

As we were leaving Binh Hoa I saw a scooter stacked 4 boxes high that had fallen over while parked and the driver was trying to pick it back up. A peloton of cyclists passed by. Real cyclists, not just school kids on their way. We did pass a school though and I noticed that all schools in Vietnam look the same. Tan buildings with big fences and blue signs with white text.

As we got to Saigon I noticed some large text written with plants on a wall. As we passed I looked back at it and saw it was a billboard wall made with an array of pot holders so you could use pots containing different colored plants to make patterns. Potted plant pixels.

The clouds were dark and it began to rain. I feared bad weather or worse, really bad weather.

I noticed a police checkpoint set up at the side of the road. I had also seen one as we were entering Long Xuyen and I would see another as we were leaving Saigon. I never found out what the story was.

Just after getting into a taxi I saw a guy on a motorbike with no helmet and a styled Asian hairdo with the addition of a mullet.

I saw two young girls on a scooter collide with a woman carrying baskets on each side of her handlebars in busy Saigon traffic.

I saw a guy on a motorbike sharing headphones with his passenger the way Tien and I do. I’d never seen anybody else wearing headphones while riding.

Our taxi turned down Nguyen Trai street, home of the Ruby Star, and we drove for many, many blocks. There were tons of stores full of awesome girl clothes and I thought about how if I was a girl I’d go nuts in a place like that. For a man of my style and stature there is neither the inclination nor the option for such an occurrence.

After arriving at the same travel agency where the two motorbike taxis had dropped us off at last time, Tien and I quickly figured out our travel situation, bought bus tickets and went to find coffee. We only had to go next door to Highland Coffee. We had eaten lunch here before, it was the cafe where the French club owner was negotiating with the local DJs. The food was good here but we just wanted coffee. It had western prices but with them, western flavor, which was very welcome. I had savored a cappuccino.

We stayed there for an hour while I caught up on some internet stuff and charged my phone whose battery had been depleted while playing Fieldrunners on the bus, then went outside and boarded our bus to Mui Ne.

There were very few people on the bus and about half of us were white, though not all speaking English. Most were a group of three girls and one guy who I thought were Ukrainian.

As we headed north there was a variety show on the TV with guy and girl hosts who I recognized. Tien said the man’s name was Nguyen Ngoc Ngan, which may not sound like you think but is still pretty hard to pronounce.

There were a lot of songs sung between guys and girls reaching dramatically out into the air and gazing at each other during the harmonies and looking away during the solos. I asked Tien why so many Vietnamese people like this kind of thing and she just laughed and said it was romantic. I asked why Vietnamese people like romance so much and she didn’t know. It seemed odd for a conservative culture to be so enamored with romance. I thought that as far as video media is concerned, romance was to Vietnamese people what action is to Americans.

A bit later two Vietnamese people got on, one guy and one girl, and immediately struck up a conversation in English with the Europeans. They both spoke english very comfortably and phrases such as “you know, like” made it clear they had lived in America for a while. The man said he was engaged, though not to the girl he was with, then continued to flirt with the Norwegian girls, a detail I garnished from unwilling eavesdropping. He talked on about money and living in America, and it even seemed like his girl friend was being his wingman. For a while I thought he might just be the guy we stayed with in Binh Duong. He was certainly just as sleazy with all the same lines.

One of the bus employees came by asking where to drop us off, but we really didn’t know because we hadn’t planned that far ahead. The man in front of us said he could recommend a cheap hotel to us.

I put my headphones back on and we lost ourselves in a variety of music that I picked while scanning the songs. Debussy, The Thompson Twins, Oscar Peterson, Simply Red, Zero 7, Above and Beyond. We settled on classical and I drifted off for a few songs.

When I woke up we were slowing down next to the ocean to let the Norwegians off. There was a sizzler restaurant and a wind surfing and scuba diving tour place. We rode a little farther and got off where the man who was recommending our hotel got off. A guy on a motorbike was waiting for a fare, and he flagged down another passing motorbike to take us to a hotel. As we were riding Tien’s driver talked on and on and on in Vietnamese. We left town and headed inland a bit, which wasn’t encouraging because I wanted to be in the city or at least by the water. We took some big roads, passed an empty round-about by some big sand dunes, and eventually popped back out onto a highway that paralleled a beautiful beach. I could see the caps of breaking waves in the darkness. The air was warm, and it was magical riding along the coast through that warm night air on a motorbike next to Tien.

Tien’s driver led us to a dark resort hotel with trees scattered between various buildings. Tien later told me that he had skipped the hotel that the man had recommended because it was apparently too loud and was a dirty place. I honestly couldn’t imagine what a hotel was that was dirtier than the place he took us to. It had water stains on the wall, chipped plaster, it smelled funky, there was a board covering the window in the bathroom, and it looked pretty much like it wasn’t kept up very well.

We checked in and agreed to pay 400k a night, which was clearly too much for what we were getting. We had come so far out of town and hadn’t passed anywhere that was definitely open that I figured the price to take the motorbikes elsewhere would’ve been more than the difference, so I decided to go ahead and take it.

Right after checking in we went 50 feet down to the beach where there were lots of red and blue lights bobbing in the dark ocean. We couldn’t tell what they were, though it was clear some of them were boats because a few times somebody turned on a flashlight and shined it around the boat they were standing on.

There were also some circular boats that looked like baskets sitting on the shore. Somebody was busy filling one of them up with some kind of supplies as if they were about to go out into the water.

The sand was coarse and the water seemed a little dirty, so with that and the fact that I was tired we decided against swimming or even staying at the beach and returned to our room for the night.

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.

Heading to Can Tho

Thursday I woke up in pain from the events of the previous day. My foot was definitely bruised in a few places and the cut was dry. My sandals are pretty soft though and did a great job of easing the pain.

Back at the market for breakfast Tien and I discussed plans to go to Can Tho, a city located a few hours south by motorbike and home to a famous floating market on the river, and to Nha Trang. We decided to go to Can Tho that evening and Nha Trang that weekend or so.

Thu came around with some mangos and a durian. The durian looked like some kind of organ inside, an alien brain dreamed up by H R Giger. They made me try the durian, otherwise known around the western world as “stinky fruit.” it was very strange with several successive flavors and a distinct after taste that unfortunately lasts for hours even when chased with a fresh mango.

That afternoon I rained on and off, sometimes very hard, and Mai suggested that we not go to Can Tho that night. We did though, waiting for what looked like clear skies and a bit later than we wanted.

The roads were worse than I expected. Tien had said it would take three hours when I said it would probably take two. She was right though, of course, because she lived there briefly while taking classes at the local college. The sunset was gorgeous with big billowing clouds in the far distance. Darkness set in about halfway there, but it didn’t rain.

We passed through a lot of construction, of course. There was a large building that looked finished with a balcony on the second floor that stuck out over the entryway. The third floor stuck out above the inside of the balcony, shading it from the elements and there were no doors between the balcony and the inside. Vietnam is the kind of place where it’s never so cold you have to turn on a heater. The floors are made from tile and withstand the elements and human abuse, so you don’t always need windows.

The ride seemed to stretch on forever and my ass began to hurt badly. Later I would discover bruises back there on the bones and tissue, and would then decide never to take a long trip on Tien’s motorbike ever again.

As we got to Can Tho I noticed two things that set it apart from other places we’d been. First, there were numerous Christian churches, which is very rare in Vietnam. Usually there will be one church and buddhist shrines and temples everywhere. This was probably the first time I’d seen several in a row and it was reminiscent of the USA and it’s competitive divisions of Christianity. The other thing I noticed was more progressive fashion that seemed to have a purpose or theme outside the normal engrish phrases. There was a sense of brand style in some of the shops rather than the free for all found most of the other places I’ve been. The only other place I’d really seen this in Vietnam was the westernized shops in Saigon that were sometimes even owned by the brand, like Dr. Marten’s.

We rode down main street and turned off a few side roads searching for a hotel. By this time Tien was doing most of the searching and I was busy trying to find an unbruised part of my back side to sit on. Eventually we found a hotel for $15 and took it. We went upstairs with the intention of resting for a while before heading back out to a place Tien used to eat, but we didn’t make it back out until the next morning.

The trip home from Da Lat

Sunday morning was warm and glorious. Eating breakfast outside was a treat that morning. We hung around the hotel until a van came to pick us up at 12:30 and take us off to our bus. We had expected the van to arrive sooner and give us time to eat while waiting for the bus, but there wasn’t enough time so we boarded and headed out with the expectation that we’d stop in an hour or so where we could find some food. This was not the case.

The first place we stopped was a tea and fruit juice place that had pretty much no food. There were a few things like cakes that you would eat with your tea, so Tien and I got some cakes and ate them on the bus as we headed up a mountain pass that was in the middle of being reconstructed.

The bus had a DVD player and a TV at the front so people could be entertained along the way. This was a home entertainment style DVD player, which means it wasn’t really built to handle being moved along a bumpy dirt road winding through jungly mountains. Needless to say it skipped a lot and they eventually turned it off. I wondered why in a country like this with so many dirt roads a company like Mailinh who had busses that went everywhere didn’t just rip their DVDs into something that could be played from a cheap solid state media player. I wondered about the technological and business aspects of such a proposition, along with my idea to put wifi at popular bus stops, since there never is any and I’m sure people on their netbooks would use it. Perhaps the country just isn’t quite ready for that step…

Tien and I didn’t get a chance to eat until 4:30pm. Hu tieu never tasted so good.

Back on the road, I saw a motorbike with logs about 6 feet long stacked sideways on the back seat so that it took up the full lane of the road. The sunset was beautifully colored, like tropical fruits. There were beautiful green rice paddies illuminated by that gorgeous dusk light, but I had a hard time photographing it and I realized it wasn’t just because we were in a moving vehicle. Vietnam is so flat that you don’t get to see much of the beauty. Trees and lines of buildings block off so much of the natural beauty of the rice paddies and fields, and there are so few mountains that you rarely rise above it so you can look down on it. It’s a shame, really.

Well into the darkness of light we passed over a bridge where there were house boats floating on still water, reflecting their lights all around them. It was magical.

As we were coming into Saigon I saw an airplane on its descent. It was the first airplane I had seen since we left the airport several weeks ago.

I saw a huge billboard at the side of the highway advertising HHH Zippers.

Back in Saigon, we caught a taxi to the Bui Phan but it was full except the most expensive room, so we headed to the Ruby Star and got a cheap, awesome room. WiFi on this floor was a problem, I was unable to get out to the internet. Upon further investigation I discovered multiple cascaded DD-WRT routers all using 192.168.1.0/24 on both their LAN and WAN, and this was keeping me from getting out to the internet. After a few guesses I was into the admin panel and was able to reconfigure them each with their own LAN subnet so that there was no overlapping IP space and I was soon able to actually get out onto the internet. I considered different approaches but settled on this since I was doing all configuration over the air. It was good enough for one day.

Monday morning I woke up and when I signed on I had some more problems with the internet. My computer had switched to a different AP with the same SSID and a different LAN subnet. This was no good. I decided to go ahead and fix this problem once and for all by adding the WAN ports of each router to the switch, disabling DHCP, giving all the APs the same SSID and assigning them static addresses in the DSL modem. This allowed roaming access throughout the hotel, the way it should be. It worked like a charm and I felt pleased with having done something productive. I rather missed the IT world and the puzzle of finding elegant answers to technological problems.

Tien and I grabbed breakfast and decided that rather than stay in Saigon and rent a motorbike, we would return to Binh Hoa. There was potential fun in Saigon but returning home for a few days rest was appealing, and we’d definitely be coming through Saigon again numerous times anyway.

The standard procedure for hotel checkout is playing on computers until it is time to catch a taxi to a bus, then check out of the hotel and head out. This is what we did.

I saw a girl on the back of a motorbike reading a book and my NV240HD failed when I tried to take a photo of her.

I saw a girl with a shirt that said “I swoop want water.”

That evening we were back with the family in Binh Hoa, sharing the details of our trip to Da Lat. The bus trip from Saigon always wears me out because it’s not comfortable and I can’t relax without my body moving into a painful position, Scootretteso after dinner and a little bit of teaching Ngoc english from a book she had we fell fast asleep.

Tuesday was pretty much a rest day. We did the routine shower and get breakfast at the market. This morning though Thu brought over some mangos and peeled them. They were delicious. I don’t think I had ever eaten mango before, except the dried kind. While we sat there eating mango we planned to go hiking on Mt. Cam and to the floating market in Can Tho. That evening we took a little ride around at sunset and took some photos. That evening Mai made us sweet soup, which is a desert style dish with sweet peas, coconut and some squiggly things made from flour that have the consistency of those tapioca drinks.

Killing time in Saigon

On Monday, Tien and I decided to find a new breakfast place. We walked several blocks through the heart of the tourist area at Pham Ngu Lao and found a lot of places that looked overpriced and inauthentic. I honestly don’t like things to be too touristy, so when I see people with color t-shirts from the cities they have visited sitting at a fancy looking restaurant where all the seats face the street, I shy away. We walked down a block with big business offices and came upon a fancy cafe with about 20 motorbikes out front and knew it must be good. This is how I am going to gauge restaurants from now on, by how many motorbikes are out front. If there are few it’s either bad food or for tourists.

After breakfast we again we went looking for meds and found nothing. Tien said she’d call her friend who is a doctor and ask him about it. We walked and talked and went and had smoothies. We, or rather I, talked a lot about music and culture and how I feel like VN is prime for an alternative culture to thrive. I feel like there is a lot of artistic talent here that has no direction and is still tied to the traditions of the culture, and that if there was a cultural icon who broke away from that tradition it would have a huge effect on the direction of the next generations. Music and visual art were my two main points of illustration. The fact that there is no alternative music to speak of and no graffiti in Saigon demonstrate the ties to cultural traditions.

We headed back to the hotel room and did some research online about pharmacies and malaria. I was horrified by the stories of people on Lariam (Mefloquine). The photos and story of the Somalia Affair were enough for me to stay away from that med. Malarone was probably out of the question, but I did find doxycycline and that looked very promising. What was even more promising was learning that Vietnam doesn’t even have much of a malaria problem to begin with, and that’s why it’s so hard to find anti-malarials. Apparently there is only a problem with malaria in the high regions surrounding Laos, and one remote forested region down south. Tien’s doctor friend said this and I didn’t believe it at first, but I found malaria maps online to back it up. I wondered about the american medical system…

Again I napped, and again it was too long. I’ve decided to call off afternoon naps at all costs until I get my sleep schedule well in order. Tien and I woke up just after sunset and went to have dinner. We had pho, and we played a word game that I played with Lila’s son Maks in the car on the way to the airport where you find a word that begins with the last letter of the previous word. Car, Road, Dream, Mellon, Nearby. This was a fun game to play for the word association aspect of it and for the vocabulary aspect for Tien.

After dinner we wandered back to a pirate DVD and Book store we found on my last trip, got some movies. We ate smoothies on the way back to the hotel, then stayed up late watching Minority Report on my laptop.

On Tuesday Tien and I went back to coffee viva for breakfast. We sat in the back next to a bronze statue of a topless girl reclining and arching her back. There was supposed to be a fountain or pond, but it was dry and smelled like fish so we moved. Over breakfast we talked about things we could do on this trip. We considered Ha Tien Beach, Ha Long Bay since she had never been there and Nha Trang since I had never been there. Other countries were also considered but Laos was ruled out with the highlands of Vietnam because of malaria. We also talked about getting me a motorbike license back in Long Xuyen.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a motorbike rental shop and looked at prices. It was $6 a day including helmets, which sounded really appealing. We decided to go plan more at the hotel and come back when we needed the bike. We picked up a pizza for an afternoon snack and went to a park by the hotel to look for a geocache. We found where the cache was but decided not to get it in the broad daylight because of the muggles. Instead we went to the hotel and chilled out for a while and ate our pizza. Tien called her old teacher Tyler about hanging out with him but he was busy that evening. I heard back from David that he was back from Singapore but was sick. He was resting for the rest of the day and would let me know if he was feeling better the next day. So, with nowhere to go we decided to nap.

We went out to walk around at dinnertime and had trouble agreeing on a restaurant. Tien eventually pointed to a decent looking place that was Australian themed. I got a big Saigon Red beer and some beef with rice. It was absolutely delicious at first bite, then I was hit by the MSG train. It wasn’t a hint, it was obvious. Fortunately it was in the sauce and I was able to eat a lot of the rice and other tasty bits without it tasting too bad, but my mouth was still tingly afterwards. Tien’s mixed fried rice wasn’t too bad, but I directed us to our now usual smoothie spot for after MSG cleansing. The smoothie shop was conveniently right across from the geocache, which is now the only cache in Saigon. We found it quickly, took a trackable and went back to the hotel. We put on Harry Potter and the half blood prince but fell asleep about thirty minutes in, not because it was a bad movie.

Heading back to Vietnam

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything, mainly because I haven’t been traveling. Espiritu del solI left Colorado and drove back to San Francisco in mid August, over two months ago. In that time I’ve mainly been focusing on two things: finishing an I-129f petition for Tien and studying and practicing flash photography. Most of that time has been spent sleeping on the floor or couch in Brianna, Lily and Terresina’s living room. I did get a sublet for a few weeks right up on top of twin peaks, and I did stay with some other friend in that time. Some people had suggested that I get a job and an apartment and prepare for Tien’s arrival in the US, but I just didn’t want to do things that way. Instead, once I finished Tien’s petition I decided to go back to Vietnam. So, here I am on Northwest Airlines flight 27 from San Francisco to Tokyo where I have a quick layover before flying to Saigon.

Honestly, the last few months have been difficult personally because my future has been up in the air and it’s been up to me to steer the direction of my life through wide open uncertain circumstances. My fiance is still in Vietnam and probably can’t enter the US for 7 more months. I’ve been wading through the US immigration system pretty much on my own. I have no job and no home of my own. There was the option of starting up a photography business of my own. For a while I didn’t even have a phone, then I realized that was ridiculous and forked over $70 a month for an iPhone plan which was extra great because of tethering. I still don’t have health insurance which led to me skipping an optional vaccination and needing to find malaria meds in VN because I didn’t find the SF Travel Clinic until last night, and I just started planning this trip 3 days ago.

Two nights ago I took the girls out for dinner as a thank you for being so hospitable and to have one last great time with them before heading out. Yesterday I took care of last minute preparations. One of the things I did was buy a pocket camera to replace the LX3 I had purchased in Saigon last time. I lost the LX3 at Lovefest after drinking a bit too much. I honestly have no idea where I lost it, but I was happy I didn’t lose my D300 instead. The camera I picked up was a $150 Samsung NV24HD. The look is what first caught my eye, then its remarkable interface, then its ability to do 60fps video and lastly its 24mm equivalent lens. A few quick googles showed happy owners so I followed the impulse and bought it. Following impulses is working out pretty good for me.

That night I headed down to Lila’s house to crash there for the night. Will had wrecked one of their cars so like last time I let her them borrow mine. This works out great because they get a car and i don’t have to pay storage costs. Lila and I took Maks to his new school in Palo Alto and then she dropped me off at SFO. My friend Blake is living out in SF now and was flying back to CO for a week, so I met up with him at the airport after checking in for my flight. We caught up on recent life details and future life strategy while he waited in an incredibly long line at the Southwest Airlines ticket counter. I left him still in it when I had to go to the international area.

At the security checkpoint I was happy to see that they had gotten rid of that lame requirement to remove your laptop. The posted signs only said to remove oxygen mask systems, full size DVD players and game systems, but no mention of laptops anywhere. My happiness at not having to unpack my bag was ended with a snide comment from a TSA agent about how I was supposed to remove my laptop for the x-Ray machine. I wished her luck when she said she was going to take it out for me, but thought again about how I needed that luck since I’d be the one repacking my bag. Stupid TSA security theater.

I bought an $8 ham sandwich and a single serving bottle of wine because I’d need to sleep on the plane. International flights may be one of the only legitimate excuses for drinking in the morning. I ate, emailed Tien, canceled my per-month iPhone plan and boarded the plane. We took off ahead of schedule and are looking at a shorter than expected travel time. Maybe I’ll catch sunset in Tokyo. Hopefully it’s not foggy like last time.

My trip was taking the same route I took last time, SF to Tokyo to Saigon. Last time I flew on All Nippon Airways and it was absolutely the best airline experience I’ve ever had. I had tried to get another flight with them, but after searching I found that United and NWA (Delta) were roughly half the cost at $680 round trip. I thought this was a fantastic deal considering I was buying two days in advance, but then I remembered the recent flood that ravaged Hoi An and other coastal towns in that region and it made sense.

Transcontinental flights are already pretty awesome with their in-flight entertainment systems in each seat, typically more room than domestic flights and meals and drinks are included in the ticket price. I wasn’t so sure how delta would stack up against Ana and was a little interested in finding out. 3 hours into my flight I have some results…

The entertainment system for the whole plane crashed shortly after I started using it. The flight attendant on the intercom said it would take 15 minutes to reboot, and it did. A sight that was familiar to me came on the screen: tux the penguin and a bunch of black and white textual technological jargon.

After a few iterations the system eventually stabilized and I was allowed the displeasure of finding innumerable bugs and limitations. The media wasn’t sortable and was not listed alphabetically. When browsing reviews, the “next” function was 4 clicks away while the default was “watch trailer”, which clearly assumes that people intend to watch trailers more than skip to the next review. The media was Aldo incorrectly linked so that clicking Forrest Gump let you watch a Honduran movie called Sin Nombre. There were 4 unhelpful listings for Delta TV that ended up being popular american television shows. The most disheartening thing was their lack of selection, there are only a handful of movies available, nothing for me to watch. The in-flight map showed that we had flown 8500 or so miles shortly after takeoff. This was accompanied by a flat map, not a globe. The “comments” link only let you take a survey and not actually leave comments, which stiles one my personal pet peeves of interface elements that say they do one thing and do something completely different. “Download now” is the worst offense of this kind on the Internet. So, yeah, big fail on the delta entertainment system unless the label it as alpha or maybe beta.

The next test was the meal. It was actually very good, but plastic silverware is wasteful and cheap. They did provide hand towels, coffee, beer and wine though, so that was also nice. All in all, not too bad.

One of the highlights o this trip is meeting up with an old room mate and coworker, David Tran. He’s a Vietnamese Parisian who is on a trip to Saigon to see his family. he’s actually in Singapore right now but will be returning on Monday which gives Tien and I some time to spend in Saigon with each other and her friend Trinh and gives me time to adjust to the time difference, find malarone and get started on that two day lead in before entering malaria infested areas.

My 39 hour day

By the time Monday morning rolled around I had slept away over half of my weekend while doped up on NyQuil and Imodium. I was finally starting to feel better on Monday, so much so that I decided I was well enough to drive to CO. I think I may have said goodbye to Brianna and Lily while I was still asleep, but Terresina was still there. She was sick too, from a night of drinking. I gave her my sympathies and a farewell and headed out to have lunch with Rob. It was a glorious San Francisco day that made me not want to leave, but I did.

At 3:30pm I headed off across the Bay Bridge. It had been so long since I’d seen it and they had done a significant amount of work on the eastern span in the time I was gone. I’d really love to photograph it during construction. You can’t even see it when you’re driving because the barriers on the side of the bridge are so big. I was soon off into the hills with the windows down and the music up and began enjoying my drive quite a bit. I remembered other times I’d taken that drive, particularly July 2nd a few years ago when I left at the same time of day to drive all night by myself as I was doing again.

I had been traveling to new places for so long and experiencing new things that I hadn’t had much time to let things settle in properly, but as I drove over Donner Pass this began to happen. The familiar feelings of the mountains and the open road were great and helped me sort through some unsettled thoughts in my mind.

I caught a scent in the air that reminded me of Double Dragon.

The sun set as I passed through Reno without stopping; the light was beautiful. I continued thinking about the past. I began thinking about all of the other drives I’d done between San Francisco and Colorado Springs. The trip when Andreas hit the rabbit in the middle of the night on the ice. The trip when Zach and I had to drive hundreds of miles through a snow storm and had to sleep in my car at a rest stop in the middle of Wyoming. The night I drove it alone in my convertible with the top down. The time Fava and I drove out together and he drove back alone. The time when Shawn, Beth, Jeff and I picked up the hitch hiking pro mountain boarder in who had run out of gas in the middle of Utah in the middle of the night. The time I flew to Salt Lake and Vince picked me up and we drove back on the snow in his Legend. The time we got lost on our detour to Las Vegas. The time we all laid down at the side of the highway and gazed at stars. The time Olivia hit a dead deer with my car. The trip when Gabe and I stopped frequently to take photographs.

Yeah, I’ve done this drive a lot. I just wish it was shorter than 1300 miles.

At about 8:45 PST I was cruising along listening to Rancid and I noticed I was feeling really good health-wise, like I was going to be well very soon. I felt awake and on my game for the first time since leaving Japan. Just as I was realizing this I saw lightning strike way in the distance ahead of me, and just after that I saw a meteorite shoot across the sky towards the sunset. I wondered if the Perseid meteor shower was coming soon.

Tuesday morning at 1:30am PST I was greeted at the Utah border with a sign telling the death toll of I-80 for 2008 and so far in 2009. As beautiful as it is, Utah has never seemed all that welcoming, and it’s things like this that really highlight that fact.

At 2:40 I saw another meteorite as I was looking for a gas station. Salt Lake City has hidden its gas stations but I used my GPS to find one that was a mile off the highway, exactly where it shouldn’t be. It was closed. I found another one though, and then found my way back to the highway with my GPS telling me turn right, turn left, recalculating. As I got onto the highway it said told me to continue driving for 430 miles. So I did.

Wyoming Wind Farm As the sun was peaking over the horizon I came upon a wind farm in Wyoming. I pulled over to photograph it and was delighted to find a dirt road that led me nearby the bases of the windmills, so I spent a long time photographing them. The sun was well above the horizon when I left to find breakfast in a nearby town. The coffee I got with breakfast was terrible though and I was nearly out of gas so I stopped again and got some snacks for the road and good coffee. This little convenience store that was tucked away outside of town was convenient indeed as it was the first place to offer truly free wifi. I caught up with some friends and told Nate that I’d be in his city within 3 hours, then headed back onto the highway.

The sun was high in the sky and was hot and I began to get sleepy. I thought about pulling over to take a nap since I hadn’t slept at all on the drive yet, but when I looked for a place to nap I realized that Wyoming around I-80 has no trees as far as you can see. There was no shade anywhere and I sure as hell wasn’t going to nap in a hot car so I just kept driving.

I made it to Colorado, followed my GPS through the somewhat familiar streets of Fort Collins and out onto I-25. Then I noticed that I was in Colorado and the drivers here are not to be trusted and so I got on my guard. I looked at the highway though and thought that maybe if Colorado would build a highway wider than 2 lanes people wouldn’t seem to drive so terribly here. Maybe they would even get along on the road.

When I got to Nate’s house he wasn’t home. I couldn’t sign onto his wifi either, and I had no phone service, so I was in a predicament. I went to find free wifi and couldn’t find it for the life of me. Everything was protected. Even the coffee shop didnt’ have wifi and the surrounding nets were all protected, including the library. I eventually drove a long way to a coffee shop that I thought Nate would be at, but he wasn’t. In fact, nobody was because it was out of business. Like a gift from God though, I was blessed with an open wifi signal and I used it to check facebook where I got a message from Nate telling me he wouldn’t be home and I should go to his office on Pearl Street in downtown Boulder.

Boulder was different than I expected. It was more like a normal tourist Colorado mountain town than I had imagined. It was clean. Even the hippies were clean, which was weird. It was rich and expensive and had lots of nice things and people who owned nice things walking around talking and riding bikes and shopping. It’s definitely an active place. It seems like a place for people who love the activity of city life but don’t like the city.

I went into Nate’s office and met some co-workers of his. Then I went to their meditation room, or something like that where there were pillows and Tibetan prayer flags, and tried to take a nap but I couldn’t sleep even though I’d been awake for over 28 hours by then. Instead I did online things, made some plans, called Fava, played with cameras. Then we went out for dinner.

It was me, Nate and his buddy Chris who had just gotten back from traveling around Japan, Australia and New Zealand for 3 weeks. We had a good conversation about traveling and some of the interesting differences and awesome experiences that go with it. When the bill came I thought we were in Malaysia, but in fact the price was in dollars and really was that expensive. I remembered a life I used to live where I had a job and hence had money and had no cares about spending $30 on dinner every day. I need to not do that right now.

Nate and I cruised back to his apartment, which I’d never seen before, and chatted a little before I realized my clock was an hour earlier than it was and thought that we should go to bed. Nate went to bed but then I couldn’t sleep so I stayed up and wrote this. I am next going to write Tien, then I am going to shower, and then I am going to get a good night’s sleep that will be a proper finale to 39 consecutive waking hours.

38 hour Thursday

Thursday morning I woke up above the Pacific Ocean somewhere off the coast of Japan. I knew this because right after I saw the clouds and ocean below I looked at the helpful map showing where we were on the planet. I was given breakfast and the loudspeaker announced that we were one hour out from Tokyo.

After eating I dozed some more, opening my eyes once in a while to see what was outside my window. Blue ocean with tiny white caps under hazy clouds. Nothing but a cloud. Picturesque rice paddies that were unharvested and nobody and no boats in sight. Soon we were on the ground and I was sleepily waiting in the security checkpoint line to get back into the international terminal. I looked around at all the unfamiliar people and heard them speaking in accents, some that I didn’t recognize. I heard a japanese girl speaking in deliberate, clear english. I thought about the world and how small my world had been while I was growing up, and my world was larger than many. I still couldn’t help wondering if I’d done life a little wrong. I only traveled internationally once when I was young, and I didn’t travel much on my own volition, and usually not to new places but back to old places. I didn’t learn a second language. As an english speaker it is difficult to chose which language to master as your second, but that’s really not an excuse because two are better than one. The line was long and I had plenty of time to think about these things. Getting through security was easy and they didn’t seem to care that I had a bunch of liquids that I didn’t remove for their inspection. So much of security is theater.

I found a little office area with wired ethernet and went to work trying to find a way to get free internet. These guys had done their due diligence though and I couldn’t find any way around paying. This was a problem because last time when I tried to pay I still couldn’t get online because Boingo’s billing mechanism was broken. On top of that, the Boingo software for Mac is terrible, like so many OEM apps for Mac. They really shouldn’t bother with those kinds of things and should spend that money on something more productive.

I wandered around the airport, plodding along tiredly. It was familiar, I had spent enough time here last time that I knew where I was and where to go to get whatever. My flight wasn’t listed on the display yet though since it was too many hours away, so I just wandered aimlessly. I exchanged some money and went to an electronics shop with some stuff that isn’t available in the USA, which is just a novelty to me but still entertaining. When my flight did appear on the monitor I was 2 gates down from where I needed to be, which would’ve been really convenient if it weren’t boarding in 8 hours. I got some tea, found a power outlet and managed to successfully pay for internet access. This allowed me to kill many hours of my layover while catching up on blogging and chatting with some US folks who were up.

After sitting for too many hours I walked around the airport some more. I noticed the stark differences between Japan and Vietnam. Before landing in Tokyo I looked down at the rice paddies and it was immediately evident that we were not in Vietnam, even though there were rice paddies for as far as you could see. Japan was so clean, so quiet, so organized.

As I was walking around looking for gifts for friends a man offered me samples of sake, which I gladly tasted. It was delicious and I thought about buying a bottle, but the fact that you can’t even take duty free liquids over 100ml through Japan made me wary of what other ridiculous liquid restrictions I would encounter.

After what seemed like an eternity my plane began boarding and I watched everybody line up and get on, then when the line was nearly nothing I boarded and took my seat. I sat next to an older Japanese woman with a dignified demeanor. She began writing a note and when I glanced over my eyes picked up the word “unforgivable”. I was curious, and although I didn’t read the whole note, I did also see that she mentioned her choice of airlines by their reputation vs simply price. She folded the note up, put it in an envelope and gave it to one of the flight attendants. From then on the flight attendants would stop by from time to time and talk and talk and talk, saying “hai” over and over as this woman spoke with calm certainty. I wondered what the note actually said…

After watching some of Cirque Du Soleil’s Dralion, which has an awesome juggling scene, I switched to The Soloist and proceeded to be thoroughly unimpressed. Afterwards I managed to finally get some more sleep…

Thursday I woke up to the ongoing sounds of a boy crying. Not wailing, but genuinely crying. I realized it had been going on for quite a while and wondered why his, who was seated in the next section up, didn’t come back and help him. The first thing I saw was the darkness map of the world with our plane positioned over the pacific right on the border between light and dark. The boy’s dad eventually came back and took the boy off to the bathroom. I closed the window shades on the two windows next to me and went back to sleep. I couldn’t stay asleep though. It was an uncomfortable drifting in and out of sleep. Eventually we were landing in San Francisco and as I carried my bag off into SFO I finally woke up.

About 5 immigration people asked me if I had all my bags as they checked my passport. It seemed like they couldn’t believe that person could have such little luggage. That may have been the thing that set me apart from the rest and made them select me to a full luggage search. The guy going through my luggage also couldn’t believe that I only had one bag. He, like the passport control officer, found it hard to believe that I didn’t have a physical mailing address. The passport control officer scratched off “San Francisco” and wrote in my parents address in Colorado Springs. The man searching my bag asked me “Why did you write down Colordo Springs if you live in San Francisco?” to which I replied that I did not write down c/s. It seems so simple, move out of apartment, quit job, live out of a backpack, yet so many people don’t understand until they stop to think about it.

Sara was supposed to pick me up but I wondered if she’d even be there after my flight was late and my time was wasted while the LEO did a half search of my tightly and intricately packed backpack. She was though and it was great to have a friend there to whisk me away in a sleek automobile. We headed down 101 to Mountainview to meet up with some of the SugarCRM crew. Pretty much the whole local IT team plus Kyung showed up and we filled a nook in the restaurant with loud friendly conversation. Sara had to go and I was bummed that we didn’t have long enough time to catch up with each other.

After lunch I caught a ride back to Sugar where Lila had brought my car. I sat and talked a while about my travels and the way that poor countries and technology fit together, then headed up to Lila’s house to pick up some stuff I’d left there. When I got there I took a shower, which was great because I had been out for over 36 hours without a shower. I also tried to take a nap but couldn’t sleep, so I decided to head on up to SF.

As soon as I started driving I got sleepy. Luckily I’d driven this route a few hundred times so I could drive it comfortably while sleepy. It was lame though, I didn’t want to drive that route. I had quit my job partly because of that drive. Between that drive and the SugarCRM HQ I felt like my old life had been severed and I was having to pick it back up to get to something underneath it. I just wanted to let it go and move on, those times were gone.

The first place I went in SF was to my mailbox which hadn’t been checked in two months. All of the mail fit into the box, so it wasn’t too bad. The post office is right downtown SF, near embarcadero, and it was nice to submerge myself back into the heart of SF, like jumping straight into a pool to help you get used to the water quicker. The weather was kinda bad, breezy with a little rain, but it was familiar and that was great. The air was cool and clean, so different from anything I’d experienced in the previous two months. I also heard seagulls for the first time in two months.

Then as I was driving to the Sunset I witnessed the first crime I’d seen in two months. I thought about how I hadn’t felt threatened in any way in Asia at all. The worst thing I’d encountered were animals and the fear of getting ripped off by agreeing to an inflated price, but I hadn’t been scared fo being mugged or anything while I was there. I was sad that it took less than an hour for me to witness a crime in SF. I love this city and honestly I don’t see that much crime here, so that was a bit of a slap.

Right as I was getting to Golden Gate Park I remembered the microclimates of San Francisco, and even though it was somewhat warm downtown it sure as hell wasn’t warm by the ocean. I turned around and drove all the way back downtown and went to my storage unit to get my jacket and picked up some other gear while I was there, including some camera gear I hadn’t played with in a long time.

The ocean was vibrant and the horizon had a crisp line as I drove to Java Beach to get coffee and internet. I didn’t stay long because Rob told me to meet him at Noriega Pizza, so I headed down there. We talked a little bit and it was good to see a great friend, but I had a hard time saying a lot of stuff about my trip because I still need time to process it. Maybe… maybe this is as good as it’ll get and I should just blab about it without thinking too hard. At any rate we had good convo and then headed to Sea Biscuit to meet up with Rob Taylor so they could record a podcast for (d)NOT.

I don’t know if it’s just the fact that I can understand the language, but I think that San Francisco has more doers than other countries I’ve visited. Aside from Rob and Rob recording their gig in a coffee shop with friendly and familiar folks walking in and out catching up with the latest goings on, I’ve seen a lot of other people around already that look like they’re up to something fun. There is a cool energy in San Francisco that I really really like. Some of it is the natural energy of the city, and on top of that there is the sentimental aspect, the familiar places with so many good memories tied to them. I was really really happy to be back.

We dropped Rob Taylor off at home and headed back to Rob’s place and geeked out with laptops, linux, Star Trek and a sip of whiskey.

Plans always change, next stop San Francisco

Like many times before, yesterday we had our plans and then they were changed on us. At breakfast this morning Tien told me that she talked to her school and had learned that she had employment obligations that required her to stay in Vietnam and work through September. With that finality, I’ve decided the best next step is for me to quit resisting everything that is directing me to go back to America on my planned travel date, and so I will fly back to America tomorrow night and arrive in San Francisco before noon on Thursday.

The return from Malaysia

Tien had expressed how happy she was to be back in her home country when we were walking through the airport, and it showed once we got in the taxi. She smiled a lot and was chatting up a storm with the taxi driver. I began to sink back into the mindset of not even needing to pay attention to verbal communication because nobody spoke to me in a language I knew except for words that were superfluous when paired with body language.

I had guessed that Malaysia would be hotter than Vietnam, but I had been wrong.

As we drove and looked around at the familiar scenes of Vietnam Tien said “my country is very poor.” This is something I already knew, but it was a distinct detail now that she had something to contrast it against.

We had the taxi driver drop us off at the usual hotel, the Ruby Star, and we were given the same exact room we had last time, complete with intermittently malfunctioning air conditioner and partially clogged drain. Still it was nice to have AC at all, and at least we wouldn’t get mixed up. We rested for a bit. I caught up on some online stuff and found that I’d lost all of my photos from a day in Cambodia, most importantly the photos of S21. This was disappointing if only because I wanted to use one of them to illustrate a (d)NOT article written by Robert Taylor.

Tien and I headed out to have dinner and shop at a famous market in Saigon. Over dinner I asked her to tell me a story and she told me her life story, which began “I was born into a poor and happy family.” It’s true, I think I’ve described her family that way to people before. We talked about the state of Vietnamese people and what Vietnam needs to progress. We’d touched on many things related to this, such as the communist government. It’s an interesting subject to me, especially considering the increase of western influence that is riding in on a technological wave.

Tien made me take about 5 pills after I finished dinner. She’d gone to a pharmacy earlier and they had given her a cocktail remedy for my ongoing digestive problems. We then went to the market which was a one story building with many many vendors inside of it and was much the same as the Chinatown market in KL. We bought perfumes as we had wanted to do in KL and then headed back to the hotel.

On Saturday we went to have breakfast at a restaurant we’d eaten at once before but had since been remodeled. I had a hard time eating because I felt really weird in a way that I could not describe. It was a feeling I’d never experienced before but was somewhat like being hung over. I guessed it was a lack of hydration due to the medicine I’d consumed at dinner the night before. We went back to the hotel and I drank a ton of water and went back to sleep. When I woke up 90 minutes later I felt significantly better. It was time to check out, but it was not time to catch our bus, so we sat at a coffee shop around the corner and I downloaded Worms for the iPhone.

A taxi came and picked us up at the coffee shop and dropped us off at the bus station where we sat for another 30 minutes inside a small room where people were having loud conversations and going in and out really quickly. I tried to sleep since I was still feeling a little ill, but could not. Soon enough our bus arrived and we boarded in the far back corner. The bus took off and soon after departing turned down a very bumpy dirt road that we’d never taken before. Tien has motion sickness problems and she didn’t have any medicine to take and thus quickly became uncomfortable. I guessed that the detour was to avoid a huge traffic jam just outside of town, but it seemed that many people were taking this detour and it ended up being somewhat jammed itself. Tien asked me to put on some jazz for us to listen to. We got through the bumpy dirt roads alright and once we were back on the paved road the ride seemed smoother than I remember it being on other trips. It was so smooth that we both dozed off and went to sleep for a while. When we woke up we played Worms for a long time, and soon we were in Long Xuyen with just a few more minutes until we were dropped off right outside her house.

With heavy backpacks, gifts in our hands and not much traffic out on that Saturday night, we walked into the house and into warm greetings. It was a happy time as we sat around inside exchanging gifts, showing photos and sharing stories. Tien’s family got me a pair of sandals while I was gone, and some beer and wine which was a nice gesture since none of them drink. I drank a beer while we all talked and had food. Then, glorious sleep.

Sunday morning Tien and I went and had breakfast at the market. Now that we were back home it was a good time to talk about where we were, how we felt about traveling and our future, and level with each other about things we’d been keeping aside for the duration of our trip. We had a good personal talk and were both happy at the end of it.

We went back to the house and I opened up a package that had arrived for me. It was a replacement Geomet’r GPS for my Nikon. It looked like it might have the same manufacturing defect that my previous one did, but at least I had it. I tested it and it did work, but I’m still wary of the device and don’t recommend it as a reliable geotagging solution. Not only that, it is not flexible as it cannot be used with the LX3, whereas a GPS data logger would work with any camera along with something like GPS Photo Linker. I am definitely going to go that route next time…

We spent the rest of the day being lazy and hanging out at home. I took a long nap, longer than I’d planned. It was nearly sunset when I woke up. Tien and I went out to cruise the village and I took a bunch of video to show people back home what it’s like. As a photographer one of the things that frustrates me is that you honestly can’t always capture the scene with still images, even as much as you want to, so it’s nice to have some simple video to fall back on.

Monday morning we meant to get an early start but did not. We were too late for breakfast so we headed to Long Xuyen and had lunch at our usual internet cafe. Looking at the calendar I realized I was supposed to fly back to the USA in just over 48 hours. We talked about our options for the time between now and when she gets the fiancé visa approved and I decided to not fly back to America but instead stay in Asia. I thought that it would be more important for us to stay together during this time than be apart for however long it’s going to take. I’m still really angry at US immigration and I think it’s complete bullshit that I have to stay out of the country if I want to be with my fiancé.

It rained hard, then softly, and we left the coffee shop and went to a book store. We found an english book, Sherlock Holmes – Silver Blaze, for Tien to read to me to help her with her spoken language and pronunciation skills. These are the two hardest things for her to have practiced while learning english in Vietnam.

We left the book store and cruised around the city some more just trying to find something to do and found our way to The Panda Cafe which is on the 5th floor roof of a large electronics store and looks down on a large round-a-bout. I had seen this place from the ground and wanted to check it out, but it was before sunset and was probably the wrong time to see it in its proper context. It was mostly dead. It looked cool though.

There were matches in the bathroom so you could smoke; Vietnam is still macho like that.

We had two small expensive drinks and then left. I wanted to get a copy of Wall-E to watch with Tien’s family, so we went to a media store where they sold knock-off music and videos. I couldn’t find the movie because all of their books were completely disorganized. Chinese movies were stuffed in with Japanese and American, and there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to what books the movies were placed in. I thought it was odd that I couldn’t even find a pirated copy of a movie to pay for.

On the way home Tien pulled off to the side of the road where two people were selling crabs from a basket. Tien asked for something and the woman began pulling crabs out of the basket and dropping them in a plastic bucket where the man made sure they did not jump out and crawl away like I’d seen at another crab vendor a few blocks back. After putting about 10 crabs into the bucket they put a bag over the top, flipped it over and tied the bag off, sealing the crabs inside. I thought that a plastic shopping bag was not adequate protection for 10 crabs, but they double bagged it so I couldn’t complain. It ended up being OK though and we were not maimed by the crustaceans.

That night Tien read half of Silver Blaze to me while I dozed on the couch, swatting mosquitoes and helping her correctly pronounce some new words.

Malaysia, Part 2

Wednesday I woke up to hurricane winds and our hotel shaking. I moved the love seat in off the patio expecting to have torrential rains hitting soon, then I went back to sleep. When I woke up 3 hours later everything was calm. I guess that’s just how night weather is in Malaysia.

Sometimes when I dream it is like a movie with actors and character development, a climax and an ending. Some times the credits roll. This night I had a dream in that style about a big heist, but not a bank heist. It was something about ripping off a big corporation. I remember less of the plot from this dream than probably any other dream I’ve had like this, but I do remember the ending where about 4 of us survived an ambush. The whole dream was narrated by Morgan Freeman.

Tien and I were awake in time for breakfast this morning so we went downstairs and had a surprisingly good meal. We went back upstairs and relaxed for a bit and tried to figure out if we should leave, and then after a big pillow fight we decided to pack up. We checked out and caught a Mercedes Benz taxi back to the bus station. We got on the bus to Seremban, the city where we had to transfer to a train that would take us back to Kuala Lumpur. We turned on some music and zoned out and nearly missed the station. Luckily I happened to see the walkway we’d taken a few days earlier and recognized it in time to get off at the exactly right stop.

While we were waiting at the train station I saw a scale and decided to weigh myself and my backpack. I weighed 97 kg with a bunch of stuff in my pockets, and my backpack was 16 kg. I have to say I’m pretty happy with my backpack, especially since it holds 35 lbs of gear comfortably.

We boarded our train and headed off. I was staring out the window watching forests of palm trees pass by when I was struck with a craving for Mexican food. Then I thought about Puerto Alegre and how lovely their guacamole is with a margarita. There was no chance to have anything like that here though, so I let the thought go…

We checked back into the Mandarin Pacific in KL and had a rest, then headed out to find the Petronas Twin Towers. On our way down to the Pasar Seni station I smelled cloves in the air and realized that it wasn’t the first time I had smelled them in Malaysia. I guess people here love cloves, and I can’t blame them.

Four stops down the line we got off at a subway stop called KLCC and walked up a few flights of stairs. Walking up the steps from a subway into a new city is always an exciting thing and I recalled my first time walking up to Stockton and Market in San Francisco. I wasn’t sure what to expect here in KL, but what I did see when we walked out was a huge ƒ building. I wasn’t sure what it was but I began photographing it, and as we strafed it I realized that it was in fact one of the two Petronas Towers.

Petronas Twin Towers The Petronas Towers were enormous and awesome. I’d never seen such at glorious building before. They were shiny and clean and all of the spaces surrounding them were huge. Huge entryways, huge fountain, huge driveways. Tien and I spent a long while photographing them from near and far, and then went inside to take more photos. Inside on the bottom levels is a four or five story mall. Outside in the back is a large patio with an impressive fountain and an island. We took many many photos and some videos. TIen had never been inside of a shopping mall before and had never seen skyscrapers aside from those in Saigon, which aren’t really skyscrapers so much as tall buildings.

After we got tired from awe at the towers we were hungry, and since mall food tends to suck I resisted the urge to let Tien try Pizza Hut for the first time and we walked a block away and found a better, cheaper restaurant than what would’ve been available at the KLCC mall. I was beginning to feel a little ill in my digestive system, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying two beers and a delicious plate of spaghetti with chicken. Tien got some sort of delicious chicken and rice dish and honey lemonade. We sat and enjoyed our food as it got dark, then returned to the Petronas towers to take some photos of it at night. They are much more impressive at night because of the way they are lit up. Aside from the unique Menara Kuala Lumpur Tower, the rest of the skyline wasn’t even remarkable when compared to these towers.

We were really tired by this point so we got on the train and managed to stay awake. Between the train station and the hotel I began thinking about an old friend I used to work with named Ron Abitbol. Sometimes we had to travel for work to the same places, but we did t work together all that long. Ron lived out of his car about half of the time, and sometimes he’d live in his boat or in an actual dwelling of some sort. He was a unique character, his own man. Some people thought he was weird, and I guess he was. He did his own thing pretty much all the time. Before I had met him he had gone to Mexico for a long time and worked on a boat. He ended up marrying a Mexican girl and bringing her back to America. He would wander all over. I felt like I might be a Ron.

That night I slept unusually poor. The sickness had set in and kept me up frequently. Even so, we ended up sleeping in late and missing breakfast on Thursday morning.

We decided to go to the Batu Caves, a place I’d wanted to see since I saw taka’s photos of it. As we were getting ready a screw fell loose on my glasses like it had back at Angkor wat. We wandered around looking for a micro screwdriver and found an optics shop where a girl tightened the loose screw for me.

A block later we found a small temple and were invited inside. We went in and as I was taking photos I noticed that the battery on my camera was nearly dead. We went back to the hotel and ended up staying there and not going to the caves at all because I felt so ill. Tien went to find some medicine and food. I had told her to get some dried fruit. She returned with medicine, tea and junkfood which she said was the closest thing she could find to fried food. She did have some multigrain crackers though and that was nice.

Tiny WatchersWe napped the afternoon away and when I woke up I was antsy and feeling a little better, but rather than the batu caves we went to Menara KL looking for a geocache.

Two train stops up we began what was a decent walk to the top of a hill. As we got near the cache location a group of monkeys came running up. We took photos of them and watched them play and preen. When a menara security guard finally left we found the cache and dropped off a travel bug I’d found in SF. This was Tiens first geocache.

Since we were at menara we decided to go up into the tower. It was nearly sunset and the views were gorgeous. It really helped me see the space of the city, which was larger than the maps had led me to think.

There were many Islamic families in the tower and many of the women were dressed head to toe in black with just eyes and hands showing. One of them was having her photo taken, which I thought was funny since you couldn’t see almost any of her. It was like taking a portrait of somebody wearing a gorilla suit, it could be anybody. I thought about that custom and the more I thought about it I became slightly offended at it. I couldn’t put my reason into words but I was definitely offended and that was strange since I don’t usually get offended by people’s lifestyles.

We went back down the 1 minute elevator ride, me feeling slightly ill on the way, and at the bottom was a vendor playing with a really neat crazy remote controlled car. I ended up buying it for tiens nieces.

We took a shuttle down the hill to the street. The radio was playing a local Malaysian radio station with pop hits in English. One thing I like about Malaysia is that almost everybody speaks English. On top of that, many of the Malay words are misspellings of english words. For example, restoran, motorsikal, ekspress, monorel, and bas.

I had a hard time staying awake on the train home because I hadn’t eaten a proper meal in a day and was extremely dehydrated due to my ongoing gastrointestinal problems. There was a sign on the train that said “Three seats are reserved for senior citizens, disabled and pregnant ladies. Aren’t we courteous?”

Back at the hotel I noticed the the battery in my LX3 was dead so I plugged it in with a funky 3 prong plug. Back in Vietnam I’d looked at that plug and had nearly thrown it away since my American plugs had been working great everywhere. In malaysia though all power plugs were these and I’d used that cable to charge my Nikon and my laptop.

I was starving by this point so we went for food. I very irritably dragged Tien Through the market and settled on chicken fried rice with sprite, which was very satisfying. We then went to look for some gifts for her family at the market but couldn’t find anything that really stood out and decided to get some perfume once we were back in Saigon since we probably couldn’t bring it on the plane. We headed back to the hotel and packed for our early departure the next day. I always take a long time to pack so I gave Tien On the Road and had her read aloud to me while I packed.

We got to sleep later than I had hoped and 6am came too soon. We hit the train to sentral and arrived at nearly 7, which was a bit later than planned. Even at that time Starbucks was not open and we weren’t going to eat McDonalds so we just got on the KLIA Ekspres and went to the airport with the intention of getting breakfast there. We ended up arriving much later than I had planned and I was a little worried that the lines through passport control would be as long as last time we were here, but the whole process of getting into the international terminal was actually very easy. This ease was the last bit of joy I experienced in Malaysia.

There were pretty much no breakfast places in the airport. I say this from the perspective beyond passport control. After making one of my innumerable uncomfortable bathroom breaks that were the ongoing result of my illness, we went to a cafe and got coffees and a vanilla muffin, which would’ve made a great breakfast if we had time to eat it. Instead we went down the travellators, that’s what they call the moving walkways, and got to our gate. At the gate there were unsurprisingly no places to sit, and surprisingly another xray security checkpoint. I put our coffee, the muffin, my phone, LX3, ipod and the remote controlled car into a tray and passed it through the metal detectors. On the other side I received my electronic devices soaking wet with coffee that had spilled as it went through the machine along with the spoken notice, although it was not written anywhere, that I was not allowed to bring drinks into the gate waiting area. I had run my coffee through the machine and spilled it all over my new camera, phone and iPod for nothing.

I drank some of my drinks and left the rest there, picked up my soggy electronic devices and my muffin and proceeded to the waiting area for our gate, complete with plenty of chairs and absolutely nothing else. This was a place meant for people to wait, yet they could not bring liquids in, and there were no restaurants or even a drinking fountain. I sat there dehydrated from my illness and ate my muffin with no liquid to wash it down.

I then boarded a plane and sat there for over 30 minutes with really irritating music that sounded like french music mixed with banghra being played backwards and a screaming brat in the next seat over. Neither Tien or I could understand a single word spoken by the man who offered us a meal on the plane and we ended up getting a meal that was to me entirely inedible. At least I got a few tablespoons of Sprite.

Malaysian Airlines had bragged about being one of the few five star airlines in the world, but judging from their airport and their air service, I honestly wouldn’t choose them if I am ever given a choice again, and I’ll avoid KLIA or at least plan ahead if I have to go there.

I managed to find some calm by listening to Chicane very loudly and closing my eyes, but as we landed that terrible music came back on and that brat started screaming louder and I felt a little like I was on an airplane straight to hell. We were in Saigon though, so at least that was good.

We landed. I exchanged my ringgits and some Lao money that I still had into dong, slew a few taxi touts and found a good driver to take us to the familiar District 1, Pham Ngu Lao, and the Ruby Star.

One Day in Saigon before Malaysia

Saturday, Tien and I woke up at the familiar Ruby Star which is situated in the Pham Ngu Lao area of Saigon. Our room was small and had no window so realizing that it was time to get up was difficult from the darkness of our bed, but an incoming phone call helped wake us up and get our morning started.

We went to get breakfast but ended up at a travel agency first. We got a price for two tickets to Kuala Lumpur for the following day, then went to go have breakfast and try to find something better. We had a breakfast of simply bread with eggs and soy sauce with Vietnamese white coffee, so delicious. After visiting a few other travel agencies we decided to go with the more expensive, but more convenient time-wise option that we first found.

With travel plans covered we went to tackle the only other thing we needed to do in Saigon, find camera gear. I was still searching for the Loreo 3d rig and a pocket cam. We managed to find an official Canon store, but the camera that I wanted, the Ixus 870 IS. It’s a 2008 model, but surprisingly the Canon store did have… for a whopping 9,000,000+ dong, which is more than $500. We continued our search and ended up at some 5 story electronics store that was having a super duper awesome mega blitz sale extravaganza palooza z0r where gold painted models were standing outside as statues holding a sign that presumably advertised an amazing deal and loud music with a man continuously talking about something that must have been really really awesome could be heard from a block away.

We walked inside and were unable to find any 2008 model cameras, but we did, however, find the much coveted Panasonic DMC-LX3 and my heart rejoiced and then was immediately torn and frustrated. So much like love it might have been just that. “Should I get the Canon Ixus model that replaced the 870, or should I go with the LX3?” I could not even begin to consider buying a camera that I hadn’t researched online, so we went across the street to the second floor of a bakery that smelled like sugary pastry heaven. We got some disappointing smoothies and I did some poor online research that led me to no conclusions. I pulled up Skype on my iPhone and rang up some buddies in America. It was only 11pm or so there and it was Saturday night, I figured they’d be awake and probably happy to hear from me while they were up partying or whatever.

Ben didn’t answer his phone, which sucked because he owns the LX3 and I wanted to get his final word on its awesomeness. Nathan pretty much said “go with the Lumix”, which I wasn’t even really considering at this point, and he also said “they’re pretty much all the same once you get above a hundred dollars or so, so you can’t really go wrong” and that was decent advice.

I went back to the store, saw the price on the Ixus 960 and bought the LX3. Spending that much money when I don’t have a job is a tough decision, especially after buying two next day plane tickets to another country, but it was something I needed as a photographer and I knew I’d be happy with it.

Tien and I went back to the hotel and rested. I planned to take a nap but ended up researching some stuff online and talking with Tien about philanthropic technological stuff like the X-Prize and Folding@home. We also talked about Roomba, which I love. We then headed back out to get some food while room service cleaned our room. We went to a local pizza place and got some disappointing pizza and I got a disappointing cocktail. We then tried to find some sandals for Tien, whose feet were sore and in dire need of some function over fashion footwear. We were also on the lookout for an SDHC card for the new camera, which I thought would be incredibly easy to find but instead was incredibly difficult to find. We found some great sandals though, perfect fit and Tien loved them. She put them on and we walked and walked and walked and walked until we were back at the super duper mega sale store where they only had wimpy 2gb cards. On the way back to the hotel I found an electronics boutique that sold me an 8gb card touted as being class six but in fact ended up being class 4. I swear, you can’t trust anything around here.

It began to rain a long block away from our hotel and we got to the front door just in time to be completely soaked. Luckily air conditioning helps dry wet clothes. We rested and then went back out for drinks. We found a nice lounge called Classica with only two other people in it. I got a beer and Tien got a chocolate milk. They also brought us rambutan and dragon fruit, which was nice. There was American music playing that was half neat and half awful. All in all though it was a nice place and made up for the mediocre lunch we’d had.

We retired to the hotel with anticipation of our flight to Malaysia the next day, a new camera in hand to document our trip and new experiences.

A short stay in Binh Duong

While we were in Vung Tau Mai was on the phone quite a bit talking with a friend of hers who she knew online and he invited us to stay at his place in Binh Duong, which was on the way to Saigon, so we decided to go. Unfortunately when we found the bus station there was no bus directly to Binh Duong so we had to take a bus to Saigon, then go back on another bus. This was OK though because Tien and I wanted to go down to the consulate and ask them some questions about the visa stuff.

We got on a bus and headed for Saigon. Like many busses, this one had a TV playing random entertainment. This bus was playing a DVD with some apparently famous Vietnamese people singing. It was called Paris by Night 25th Anniversary. Mostly it was people singing, but there were interviews with the set crew and some other entertaining scenes. At one point a girl had a dream that she woke up and found a genie lamp, but when she rubbed the lamp Osama Bin Laden came out instead of a genie. I’m not sure about all that happened since it was in Vietnamese, but by her second wish Bin Laden laughed maniacally and shot off his AK47 in the air and disappeared in a cloud of smoke.

Shortly after that scene the DVD began skipping so the driver turned it off and put on music set composed of 8 songs on repeat. One of these songs was Akon’s “I Wanna Fuck You” and I couldn’t help thinking of the European commercial about english lessons.

When we got to Saigon we caught a taxi to the consulate. I asked them some questions about visas and was dumbfounded at how ridiculous the situation was with Tien’s visa. It was such a load of bullshit I thought there had to be another way to do it. She said I had to go to American and file for Tien’s visa there. This was astonishing because I was not in America, nor did I have the time or money to fly there. This was the first bit of a mountain of bullshit concerning American visas for Vietnamese citizens. I left the consulate thoroughly pissed off at how asinine the situation was and had a new perspective on what Mexicans probably have to put up with frequently.

We went back to the bus station, got on a crowded and hot bus and headed to Binh Duong. I tried to sleep but ended up just marinating in sweat. We exited the bus and I continued marinating while standing on the sidewalk, then I was chilled for a few minutes inside a taxi, and marinated again on another sidewalk and on the back of a scooter.

When we arrived at Mai’s friends house I took a shower. The first thing I did when I got in the shower was break the handle off the water faucet in the bath. I have a real knack for breaking things, and it really shines over here in Asia. After showering we ate a small meal to hold us over until we got a better meal, then went out for a walk.

I soon was grateful that I ate that little meal, because the sight of half of a cooked dog hanging by his teeth in the market right outside our guest house destroyed my appetite. I was also glad I had eaten eggs since they are unmistakeable. Mai’s friend was a slick kind of show off guy who liked to have fun, so later on when we were eating I half expected him to say “that’s not chicken, it’s dog!” Then I thought “so what if it is? It tastes good…” As far as I know though, I never ate any dog meat.

It got dark and we went to sleep with the intention of waking up the next day, but ended up getting up after an hour or so to sing some karaoke. There are never any english songs in the karaoke books so I mainly get to watch other people sing. Tien sings Camly songs and people say she looks like her too.

After karaoke we did end up going to sleep. On the floor. It was probably the worst night of sleep I’ve ever had. It’s certainly the worst night of sleep I can remember, but who knows, maybe I blocked out the really bad nights.

In the morning Tien gave me a massage to help my aching back, then we walked to breakfast. We walked like 15 blocks. I didn’t mind though because I was hoping to get away from the market where they were selling dog meat. We had pho and of course I wondered what that meat was…

After breakfast, Tien, Mai and I caught a taxi to Đại Nam Văn Hiến, a safari style theme park inside of big castle walls, complete with its own real temple, a few artificial mountains, and all sorts of other assorted fun stuff.

The first thing we did was get on a train and go to hell. Or rather, a haunted house style thing inside of 5 big chinese dragon heads that was like a trip through hell. It was so dark inside that my eyes never fully adjusted. It had ghouls flying at you in the air, from behind cages, people grabbing at your legs in the dark, and tons of voices screaming, crying and shouting in Vietnamese. I thought about the Vietnam war and S21.

Đại Nam Văn Hiến Temple GateThe next thing we did was rent a tandem bicycle. Two seats and two sets of pedals for three of us, complete with a triple ring in front and seven in the back. I didn’t have much trouble working the bike and it felt good to be back on a bike since I love biking and haven’t done it in over two months. We biked to the temple and went inside. It was a big compound with water fountains and a very large room for the temple itself. It was probably the largest temple I’ve been in and it was nice that it was real, not just some tourist attraction.

We biked around some more and I took a bunch of photos and then we went to an Italian restaurant and got food. I got an incorrectly made but delicious club sandwich. Tien got some of the worst spaghetti I’ve ever tasted.

We checked out the go-kart track that was near the restaurant, but Tien didn’t want to race so I didn’t bother. It was a neat track in a figure 8 with a bridge over the intersection, the first I’d seen for go-karts. The cars were minimal, and they didn’t seem to give anybody any training on how they worked before throwing them on the track. It looked fun, but instead of that we went to Snow Land.

I was pretty skeptical of snow land, it was over 90ºF outside. They gave us rain boots, jackets and gloves, but no hat. Then they let us inside to snow land, a freezing cold sledding hill with an assortment of tubes. I couldn’t believe there was actual ice created by these air conditioners when it was so hot outside. I quickly got very cold without a hat, but Tien and I had fun sledding down a few times. She had never seen real snow, and technically she still hasn’t since this was some of the worst spring snow you’ve ever seen. Still, it was entertaining and fun.

It was late in the afternoon so we headed back to guest house and hung out for the evening, figuring out our travel plans. For some reason we decided to take a 1am bus to Binh Hoa instead of a 5pm bus. I decided to get some sleep before then since I can never sleep on those busses.