Returning from Cat Ba Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geocaching on Cat Ba Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consular BS, Interview Date, Traveling to Hanoi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 16th.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A family gathering, video games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adventures on Phu Quoc and the trip home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lazing around Binh Hoa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Taipei to Saigon, and more importantly, to Tien

On the flight to Saigon I sat next to a nice Vietnamese man from Canada who was going home to visit family. We didn’t talk a whole lot, but he did mention that Saigon is different every time he goes back, always expanding and always building. He’d grown up in Saigon but had been living in Canada for over 20 years, which means he’d seen quite a lot changes.

The flight had the standard in-flight entertainment systems on the back of each chair, and I watched people trying to touch the screens as if they were interactive. Then, miraculously they were interactive. They were so slow to respond it was hardly usable, and you couldn’t do gestures like so many people were trying, but you could in fact touch things. This made up for some of my gripes about this system from my travels last year.

When we landed and gathered our things, waiting for those ahead of us to deplane, the man next to me laughed, opened up a plastic bag he was carrying and pulled out a whopper hamburger. He said he had 9 more in the bag that he brought for his family.

I had arranged for a landing visa when my landlord Brando from my place on Telegraph Hill had suggested it to me. He said it was quicker and cheaper. It was cheaper, and significantly easier, but because there were so many other people waiting for them it didn’t necessarily end up being quicker. It wasn’t the longest I’d had to wait to enter a country though, so I certainly couldn’t complain.

32::AM::121 - Tien in the back of a Saigon TaxiAfter about 45 minutes of waiting I finally made it into the country, fetched my box of gifts and passed through customs without a hitch. I saw Tien before I even made it outside. She was standing in a crowd beyond a glass wall looking beautiful in a black skirt with a bouquet of roses. She spotted me and waved, motioned and ran off through the crowd to get to the fenced area where arrivals are greeted by their loved ones. I set my things down and picked her up in a huge embrace, happy to be back together after more than five months apart. Mai was also there waiting with her, and the three of us caught a taxi back to the Ruby Star. We relaxed for a while and ate some chocolate that I’d brought, then went out for lunch at a place a few doors down that Tien and I had seen but never eaten.

Mai headed home after lunch, and Tien and I spent the rest of the afternoon catching up with lost time and napping. We had dinner and went for a walk through the heart of Pham Ngu Lao. We heard mexican music playing in the park where some people were dancing, and a few other live bands playing english songs, which could’ve been awesome if I’d been gone longer.

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.

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.

Exploring Nha Trang

The winds howled through the cracks of the door and windows of our hotel room all night and the next morning was very breezy. I spent a large portion of the morning catching up on all the internet stuff I’d missed during my offline stay in Mui Ne. Most notably, a 3D mandelbrot set had been discovered and rendered into some impressive images. I also noticed that I had exactly one week left in Vietnam.

I was feeling significantly more I’ll that morning, but I thought I might only have a sinus cold or something lame and trivial so I didn’t pay much attention to it, expecting that it would go away in a few days

The cold water In our bathroom was broken so that only boiling hot water came out of the shower until there was no more, then it went to only cold water. This behavior would continue throughout our stay there, requiring us to take cold shower baths.

Nha Trang waterfront from the Manchester Hotel

We got breakfast late that morning at the place directly next door to The Manchester that I wouldn’t recommend. Over breakfast Tien and I talked a lot about humor and jokes. Even though there seem to be a lot of differences between Vietnamese and American humor, there also seem to be some global constants to humor. I tried to explain things like Knock Knock jokes, one-liners, and other types of humor. Most jokes in Vietnamese are longer jokes with a lot of context. This goes hand-in-hand with their love for comedy theater.

After breakfast we took a walk down the beach where it was incredibly windy. It was nice though to be out in the sun. The wind wasn’t cold either and that was nice. The weather looked stormy though, the waves were huge and the water was really rough, so I wasn’t too hopeful about getting to swim.

We found our way back onto the sidewalk by the main road and passed an area where there were about 50 large dragonflies hanging out. I thought about photographing them, but didn’t because I didn’t have anything that would make it easy to get a good shot. We also found many shops that were selling seahorses, both alive and dead and in various containers. Some were floating in liquid, some were dried and ready to be eaten whole, and some were in fish tanks with nothing more than water. Tien said that seahorses are supposed to have amazing medicinal functions, just like eating live lizards. Lore is always a little humorous to me.

Boats in Nha Trang The destination on our walk was a place called the Vinpearl, and it was amazingly difficult to walk there. We actually had to walk beyond it over a hill and then come around back to it, winding in the roads of its campus that had no sidewalks. Clearly this place was made to be traveled to and from by motor vehicle.

The Vinpearl is actually a huge island theme park with a lot of attractions. We didn’t know this when we set out to go there, but discovered it when we arrived at the mainland side of a gondola that takes people to and from the island. There were also boats of various size that would ferry people back and forth. I was feeling pretty tired from my illness and the walk and didn’t feel like I had the energy for a theme park, so we opted to go back another day and instead spend our day on the mainland. We intended to visit an aquarium, but when we got into the taxi and told him to take us there he said it was on the Vinpearl island. This was another mistake of not doing research and not using the guidebook. I’m never going anywhere without the guidebook again.

Tien at PonagarInstead of going to the aquarium we went to a place called Ponagar Tower that was an ancient stone temple. It was a bit like something you’d find at Angkor Wat. It was a small temple but Tien enjoyed it much. There was an older Japanese man doing tricks with tops, swords and yo-yo’s on the upper landing of the complex. He was pretty funny, partly because he kept messing up. He would say everything in Japanese and there was a translator and a few drum players beating on tribal drums for dramatic effect as he did things like accidentally throwing a top larger than my head, nearly hitting a bystander.

I was feeling increasingly ill and tired so we headed back to The Manchester for a nap. I was developing some flu like symptoms like fever and sore throat, so I assumed that’s what it was. We went for dinner and found an absolutely delicious pho place at the end of a dark alley and conveniently near a pharmacist. We had our dinner and picked up a cocktail of medication for my symptoms.

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.

Adventures in Mũi Né

I dreamed about Sarah Palin doing art projects for President Obama while he was busy running all over Washington DC trying to escape the secret service because they were holding him back from doing the things he wanted to do. I woke up with Doe-A-Dear stuck in my head.

I went to take a shower, and upon increasing the “heat” dial on the electric hot water heater that was attached to the shower, the light in the bathroom flickered and went out. In the pitch black with my hand still on the dial, I decreased the temp and the light flickered back on.

Fishing Boat After showering I got dressed I poked my head out the front door of our room and some mysteries from the previous night were unraveled. Beyond some local fishermen taking their nets out of the circular boats and emptying them there were many boats anchored not far out in the ocean. Two guys on a motorbike rode down the beach and parked near the fishermen. I wanted to ride a motorcycle on the beach.

Tien and I went to get breakfast, which was supposed to be included in the price of our hotel. On the way we passed some older Vietnamese men with a lot of missing teeth who were drinking beer and eating crabs for their breakfast. We also saw some chained up monkeys, a golden lizard that I was not familiar with, and a dozen small dogs. We found our way to the large dining area of the hotel restaurant. It was an open walled lodge type of building with a tall peaked roof and only one of the 50 or so tables was occupied.

The owner of the resort interrupted our conversation to sit with us while we were waiting for breakfast. He had much the same character as the sleazy guy on the bus the previous night and the guy we stayed with in Binh Duong. Later Tien and I would talk about how many of the Vietnamese men who go to America and come back have this very haughty attitude, and she would express her hopes of not becoming like that.

The bread was stale, the food was bland, and the price was not included with our room. Bien Nam was probably the worst deal I’ve ever gotten on a room, and I do not recommend it to anybody who is going to Mui Ne. With that in mind we went for a walk on the beach which we now saw was home to many other hotels. We walked along the beach, stopping at each to inquire about vacancy, price, wifi and to see a room. There were varying qualities of hotels and we settled on one that had wifi in the lobby, a friendly staff, a much cleaner room, a halfway decent view of the ocean, and for 25% less per night.

As we were walking along the beach there were numerous jet ski’s parked on the shore. I hadn’t seen a jet ski in Asia except on the river in Thailand, and wondered why because they’re so speedy and nimble, the aquatic equivalent of the ubiquitous motorbike. Here they were on the Pacific Ocean being used for entertainment.

We checked out of our old hotel without so much as a word from the owner asking us why we were leaving or asking us to stay and I thought that he was probably used to having one-night guests. We checked into our new hotel and took a nap. Tien was sleepy, but I was not, so after a few minutes of restless napping I got up and shaved my face and head.

When Tien finally got up we were both pretty hungry, so we decided to go to town. We stopped by the lobby to return our key and I played on their wifi just enough to discover that they had a wireless with no connection to the internet.

We went out front to try to wave down somebody to give us a ride into town. Not many people were passing by, and most already had passengers, so I thought we might as well walk down the road while trying to hitch a ride. It was remarkable though that I had been asked innumerable times before if I needed a motorbike when I did not, and here I was without one in sight. It wasn’t like Malaysia either where a taxi mysteriously appeared from behind a building just when we needed it.

We walked for a while and found some guys sitting in front of a hotel with some motorbikes there. Tien talked to one of them and he said he could find another person so we could both ride into town for 25k each. Just after he left to go find another motorbike rider willing to give us a ride, the valet told Tien that we could probably rent a motorbike for the day for not much more than 50k. A second man on a motorbike came by, then the first man came back with a third guy on a motorbike and what ensued was a long bickering argument about how we needed to rent from the guys we first spoke to even though they were not going to allow me to ride their bike, which was something we wanted. In the end I said “fuck it” and we left the three stubborn motorcyclists there and started walking down the road again.

We walked for a while and it was actually pretty nice to use my body, something I’m so used to doing in the USA but don’t get much chance to here in Asia. There were beautiful trees with flowering leaves, and the ocean was visible through a thin line of trees between the road and the beach. Eventually the second motorcyclist from the argument came up to us on the road, talked to Tien for a while and we agreed to rent his bike for a day for 180k. I’d never driven a manual without a clutch though, and I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to do so without first watching Tien. As soon as she took off down the road I realized that it was just like riding an auto except you could kick a pedal to change gears without worrying about the clutch.

Flat Tire in Mui NeRenting the bike was a great idea. We were now cruising down Highway 1 of Vietnam right by the ocean with warm air on our face on our way to find food for our hungry bellies. We passed a herd of water buffalo and a bunch of people who were drying fish on screens and then found ourselves at a dead end. We were lost again.

We wandered around some coastal villages, finding several dead ends, and were just about to make some progress on finding our way to town when we got a flat tire. Obviously this was incredibly lame since I was hungry and it wasn’t our bike anyway, but at least there was a moto shop right there where we had it repaired within 30 minutes. We had to buy a new tube and kept the old one as well as the contact information of the shop who did the work. I also took some photographs, but mainly because that’s what I do.

With our new tire and some instructions on how to get to town, we headed off still in search of food for our bellies. I honestly was beyond the point of hungry and didn’t care much anymore, though I knew I should eat. Mui Ne PalmsWe rode and rode and rode. We saw a lot of cool things, like the harbor where most of the boats anchor, some cool buildings, forests, animals, but amazingly we couldn’t find a restaurant. We passed all the way through town and out to where the sizzler was, though we never did find that, and all we saw along the way were cafes with snacks, but no real food.

We found a sign for The Mui Ne Easy Riders that said “I’ll show things the lonely planet did not.” I thought that was awesome, and it was accompanied with pictures of vietnamese bikers on proper motorcycles geared up with luggage and white people on the back.

We went all the way back through town and found ourselves lost at the first dead end we had found, which was a kite surfing camp.

Finally we gave up and went to get some gasoline and as dumb luck would have it, we found a restaurant. Too tired and frustrated to show our joy, we pulled over, ordered some food and drinks, and were promptly attacked by about 50 flies. I’d never seen a place with so many flies. I ordered a beer and the man went and pulled the bottle out of a crate of empty bottles, a hat, a helmet and other miscellaneous things. When I was done with my beer I set the glass down there were like 15 flies crawling all over it within 30 seconds. It was probably due to all the dead fish, since we were in a fishing village. We got our food to go because the flies were too much.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped to get a hot dog, which is not the same as it is in America. In Vietnam a hot dog is some kind of triangular crepe thing with no meat in it. We took a different route home and found ourselves riding along a big field of sand and trees where kids were jumping into the sand the same way I did when I was their age. We found our way up the big roads and vacant round-a-bout from the night before and were soon cruising that beautiful section of the coast again. The day was beautiful, the ocean was beautiful, I had my fiancé with me, I had hot food to put in my belly, and we weren’t lost. I was happy. So happy I had Tien stop so I could take her photo. As I was composing my shot a used trash bag blew up against my leg.

Cruising Highway 1, Vietnam Back at the hotel we sat on our bed and watched the ocean beyond the tin roof cabana where nobody was sitting. Since it was so late, just about sunset, the heat had worn off, so we decided to go back to the sand dune park nearby and have a look around.

Children greeted us with sleds for rent to slide down the sand dunes. We valeted the bike and started hiking up the dunes. Two kids followed us trying to rent us a sled for 30k, which we were not interested in. There were a lot of other people there watching the sunset, even many white people. I always try to smile and nod a greeting to other travelers as I pass them if it’s appropriate, and it always amazes me how white people don’t want to talk to each other or acknowledge each other’s existence.

Before heading home we got some snacks and a deck of cards. Back at the hotel the internet was still down and they didn’t know why. I knew why though. It was misconfigured and was getting no responses to its DHCP queries. It probably needed PPPoE, but those settings were not remembered in the firmware, which means it may have been hard reset as a last ditch attempt to fix what is probably an unreliable DSL connection. I hate DSL.

Back in the hotel room Tien washed our clothes and we hung them to dry on a rope that I brought to use for just such an occasion, then I taught her how to play a card game that I know but don’t know what it’s called.

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.

Hiking on Mt. Cam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

A day on a moto

Saturday morning Da Lat was colder than it was the previous day. I couldn’t tell if it was going to clear up or pour down rain on us. Regardless, Tien and I decided to rent a scooter for the day and go explore the town.

A man who worked at the hotel said we could rent a motorbike from him for 70,000, which is roughly $8 USD. We walked across the street to another hotel that was owned by the same people and Tien told them we were there to rent a moto. A girl from the hotel disappeared under the stairs into what I thought was a fountain but ended up being the way into the car port. We sat there for 5 minutes listening to that poor girl trying to start that motorbike and I couldn’t help but wonder when the last time it had been ridden was.

Eventually they brought round another moto for us that had very little trouble starting. They said that the cops in Da Lat wouldn’t pull me over for not having a license, which made sense since it’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in Vietnam. Tien was happy that I would be driving. She is a bit timid on a bike, then there is the masculine feminine factor, and then there is romance. Of course, it could also be that she just doesn’t like driving… Anyway, I got on in front, started it up and headed off in the wrong direction. As I was pulling a U turn I realized that riding a scooter is different from a motorcycle, and riding and automatic is different from a manual. Also, I had only once ever taken a passenger on a motorcycle, and that was just to give Lisa a ride around the block on my Honda CM450C before I sold it. This scooter took some getting used to, but I got the hang of it in a few hours and felt as comfortable as ever on two wheels.

The first thing we did was buy a map of the town that showed local attractions. This proved to be both useful and useless, depending on just where we were busy getting lost.

A Forest in Đà LạtThe first place we went was Da Lat University. Tien said she had seen it on TV and it was beautiful. We got gas and got lost before finding it on top of a hill north of the lake near downtown. We parked and walked into the campus and discovered that this was not the place Tien had seen on TV. While I took some photographs Tien cleared up the confusion by asking a student where the place she was looking for might be. He showed her on the map where it was, the Teacher Training College.

We left the campus and got lost again before finding the other college which was on a hill opposite the big lake in the center of town. It was indeed more picturesque, but Tien was disappointed that it wasn’t more beautiful. There was a couple taking wedding photos by the brick archways along side the building.

It was mid day by then and I got the brilliant idea to have lunch on the lake. The day was bright, and too breezy to open the awnings to shade is from the mid day sun. The restaurant was a tourist restaurant and the food was accordingly disappointing. Tien barely ate any of it and I was just hungry enough to choke most of it down. Beer cost 4x what it was other places and the “classic club sandwich” had eggs on it.

While we were at the restaurant I tried out the GPS on my iPhone and for the first time ever in Vietnam it worked. I pulled up the geocaching app and found that there was a geocache by Trúc Lâm. I also pulled up lonelyplant.com and found a few choice attractions, one of which was not on the map. We paid for our terrible food and left.

After what must have been 30 or more minutes of driving around in circles we found our way to the Hang Nga Crazy Couse. This place was not at all what you’d expect to find in Vietnam. In fact, this was more like Disneyland or something, but it was actually a persons house at one time. An employee there who was very hard to understand told us that the architect had gone to school in Russia and had come home to build this in 1990. I couldn’t understand much else of what she said, Something's up at the crazy houseand I wondered how on earth people who spoke such awful english got jobs at tour places while the man at the front desk of our hotel spoke English almost impeccably.

Tien and I wandered the house for a while and I took a bunch of photos. It was a very dificult place to photograph though because of the odd shapes and orientation of everything. One of the interesting things about the house was that so much of it was made from wood. Vietnam is a country that does not have much timber. Most of the homes are made from brick and mortar or cement, even up in the highlands like Da Lat where there are evergreen trees. The crazy house was almost entirely wooden on the inside.

We found our way to some parts that were still being built; there is always construction in Vietnam. We found a really old car in a glass garage and I wanted to photograph it but had a poor time through the glass even with a polarizer. I photographed some construction in a new mountainous tower and then we left.

Next stop was the geocache, but we certainly couldn’t do that without first getting lost and finding some more construction. We ended up taking a narrow muddy road, which was precarious on a scooter, and then merged onto what must be the smoothest street in Vietnam. It was welcome and I enjoyed it much as it swayed through a small farming valley and up into a forest.

We were unable to find the geocache by Trúc Lâm, partly because I didn’t want to reach into a hole in a brick wall that was guarded by a large spider, though I suspect the cache might be missing anyway. I didn’t care that we came all that way and didn’t find the cache, I had wanted to return to Trúc Lâm anyway since we got rained out the previous time we were there.

A tour group of older people had just gotten off of a gondola that stops at the temple and we had to wade through the crowd to get to the temple. This time it was sunny and beautiful. There were beautifully tuned wind chimes making wonderful tones in a gentle breeze and I hoped in vain that I would be able to buy such a beautiful chime at the gift shop out front. I am a fan of neuroacoustic science and had learned that monks use chimes to entrain their minds. It was evident here because you could hear the slight detuning, the binaural beat. I started to explain the science of it to Tien, but decided it was too complex for her vocabulary or at least better suited for another time. This was photography time.

The Earth and Sky of Vietnam We went down by a small lake where there were picnic tables looking over a forest on a hill and down to another lake with gentle forested mountains beyond it. We sat for a while and rested, then decided to head back to town. The sun was beginning its descend and I wanted to find somewhere to watch it set.

We headed to a train station where there was a museum of old trains but it was closed. We went to look for the Buddha and got severely lost and never once even caught site of it sitting up on its hill. Giving up, we got smoothies from a shop in the town center and went back to the lake. The ride there was cold because the sun was almost completely set by then and when we finally found a nice lawn it was mushy and wet. We opted to sit on the sidewalk to see the last bit of the sunset. The smoothies were awful and added to the coldness. We called off our miserable sunset experience and headed back to the hotel to rest for a while.

We were soon hungry since we hadn’t eaten much for lunch so we decided to go back out for food. We took our moto down to the town center and got hu tieu, headed back to the hotel, returned our moto, decided to head back to Saigon the next day and went to sleep.

A Tour of Đà Lạt

Friday morning I woke up to the delightful news that all but one of the files on my corrupt hard disk had been recovered and I knew I had that file, a photo from last new year, back in america.

Tien and I went outside and had breakfast on the terrace in front of the hotel entrance. It was cold out there but the only place to sit was outside. We needed to find some warm clothes.

After some small interactions with the hotel staff I thought about how at one time I thought that you would know you knew a language well if you got their jokes, but by this time I knew I was dead wrong. Humor exists outside of spoken language and is sometimes the first thing you find to communicate with somebody.

I looked down into the courtyard and saw a man by a Motorcycle with an easy rider logo on it.

Tien and I decided it would be a good way to see the city if we took a tour. After breakfast a bus came by the hotel and took us off to where a tour had just started.

Thiền Viện Trúc Lâm We were greeted by a tour guide who was incredibly hard to understand. Most of what he was saying I could derive from the context and surrounding sounds, but it was the important bits, the things I didn’t know and thus had no context for, that I was unable to understand.

The first place we went was a temple called Truc Lan. It was a meditation center where people came from all over in order to study. We didn’t stay long and it began raining shortly after we arrived.

Stop 2 was a waterfall called Datanla. The parking lot was at the top and we were given the option to ride a roller coaster to the bottom or walk down. Despite the fact that last time Tien had been on a roller coaster she went into shock I asked her anyway if she wanted to take it. Of course she didn’t and so we walked.

The waterfall was beautiful and pretty big compared to all of the waterfalls I’ve seen in recent years. The path to it went through the forest and under the roller coaster a few times.

Back at the top there were shops that I had ignored on the way down. There were women knitting hats and men carving wood into various shapes. Tien bought a black knit beanie with a white flower on it. I went to look for a drink and discovered that beer was only 9k compared to 15k for a pepsi. We were just getting started on the day so I bought a pepsi.

Stop three was the Lat Kings house. I listened to the tour guide talk for a while and made out much of what he said, but in the end I decided it wasn’t worth even listening to him and gave up.

Tien and I took a bunch of photos in the kings house and I really wished I had more of my gear or a d700 to widen the perspective of my PC-E 24mm lens. Some girl from our tour seemed to always be standing in my way talking on the phone so I eventually skipped ahead of her. We ended up with not enough time and were late getting back to the bus, but were somehow the first ones there.

On the way to lunch Tien said that nothing has changed in the 11 years since she was past in Da Lat. This was remarkable because it seems like they’re always doing construction everywhere in Vietnam. Colorado Springs would be so jealous.

Stop four was lunch. The restaurant was playing instrumental anthems like Chariots of Fire, Crockett’s Theme, and a dream rock rendition of I need Your Love. The sauce with the chicken had a tinge of MSG, but otherwise the food was remarkably delicious. Even the beef that came in a tin foil packet that shouted to us that it was made another and reheated for our lunch was incredible.

Stop five of our tour was a big Buddha statue that the tour guide claimed was the biggest Buddha in Vietnam. Tien and I disagreed silently, knowing that the Buddha on Mt. Cam was bigger. I just smiled and nodded through the rest of what he said about the monks doing something and some other people that seemed really important had done something else.

Suspended Animation Stop six was called The Valley of Love. It was a sad, wet, cold place where pale colored carnival rides sat motionless in the mud under a crying grey sky. There was a monkey chained up in a cage by himself going crazy and a metal lattice awning without a single flower growing on the one vine resilient enough to withstand the gloom. There were some miserable horses and yet more construction.

As we were leaving this last sullen stop on our tour I thought about the catch 22 of tourist places. Here in Da Lat I didn’t have a thousand eyes staring at me everywhere I went and random people saying hello to me as I walked down the street. The flip side was that it was not as genuine and the prices were obviously geared towards foreign travelers.

We returned to the hotel and crashed, tired from all the walking. It was evening when we awoke. We got some dinner at a place that had only one thing available, then bought and umbrella and went for a walk down by the lake. We found a market where I bought a knit hat and an Adidas jacket and immediately felt much warmer. I thought it was weird that I had to buy a jacket in Vietnam, but I guess that’s how it really is. We also bought some pistachios and a bottle of wine, then moseyed on back to the hotel for the night.

Going to Da Lat

Thursday morning when I woke up the first thing I did was plug in my dead hard disk to see if it had yet another life. Luckily it did and I put my laptop to work backing up my photos and music.

When Tien woke up we went next door for breakfast. I was thinking a lot about Colorado and the fact that my brother was now out of the Army. It had been 5 years since we’d had a family Thanksgiving together since he joined the army just before Thanksgiving. I thought about driving straight to CO as soon as I landed in SF, or perhaps switching my flight to land in Denver instead. It would be nice to have a family holiday again, though I was disappointed knowing that Tien wouldn’t be there…

At dinner the previous night Tien and I had decided to go to Da Lat instead of Nha Trang, and after breakfast we went to the travel agency where I’d gotten my ticket for Cambodia and got the information we needed to book a ticket to Da Lat. We went back to the hotel, reserved a ticket on the bus and geeked out for a bit.

We were a bit late checking out of the hotel and the bus service called saying we would miss our noon bus and would have to take the next one leaving at 1pm. We caught a taxi and headed off down Nguyen Cu Trinh to a bus station I’d never been to before.

When we arrived at the bus station, which was a small travel agency in the middle of the city, it was 11:45. Tien talked to some guys on motorbikes who told her we could still catch the 12 o’clock bus if the took us there. She got on one and I got on the other and we sped off through mid day traffic. The ride was quick with a lot of weaving and it reminded me of the ride I took with My just before leaving Bangkok.

The motorbikes took us to a travel agency about 4 blocks from where we had been staying. The problem was that we had booked a ticket with Mailinh and this was not a Mailinh bus. Tien got into a little argument with one of the drivers who demanded that we pay him 100,000 for the ride, which was 4x what our taxi to the 1pm bus cost. When tien gets upset she quits talking in English, even if I ask her to translate, so I didn’t know what was going on until after we were already on the bus, otherwise I would’ve told that guy to get lost because it was not our problem if he impersonated a Mailinh employee with the good intention of getting us to our bus on time. I talked briefly with tien about not clamming up on me so I can help her in situations like that, we accepted a learned lesson and let it go.

The bus was nice. We took off through an area of Saigon I hadn’t seen and I decided we should rent a motorbike when we come back so we can go explore farther. The river was cool and there were new buildings being built. It looked more like a modern civic center.

I read the rest of Iron Orchid. It was a decent book but nothing amazing. The ending wasn’t all that climactic.

Tien began to feel motion sick because she didn’t take her medicine in time. She had some intention of staying awake on the ride and it backfired. I felt really bad and had flashbacks to all those times I’ve spent taking care of really drunk people.

We stopped for food briefly just before turning off of the main highway into the hills. The terrain was immediately different in more than just the hills. The vegetation was more thick and tough. We continued through winding roads for a few hours and then took a longer break. Tien and I got drinks and skipped food thinking the bus ride would soon be over.

Back on the road we headed into some mountains that reminded me of the western approach of monarch pass in Colorado. The sun soon set and I listened to Tom Waits while Tien slept. The evening silhouettes of hills with hose and street light scattered off in the distant darkness were familiar to me.

We arrived in Da Lat after 8 hours. We’d been told the ride would be 5 hours. I was hungry and tired.

The usual group of taxi drivers were waiting when we arrived. The first man to approach me was dressed in quality jeans and a leather coat and a helmet. He said he was with the easy riders and could take me anywhere. I told him I was with Tien and VN conversation continued with a bus driver who ended up being our local transport.

We were let off at a hotel and were greeted by a happy woman. Since we hadn’t arranged a driver or a hotel and had just been scammed in saigon I was very skeptical of what was going on and was ready to walk away if every detail wasn’t good, but it ended up that every detail was fine and so we got a large room on the second floor with breakfast included for half of the price we had been used to paying in Saigon.

One of the first things we noticed once we were finally in our room was that Da Lat was cold. Not cool, but cold. It was also raining gently.

We went to find some dinner and ended up at a Chinese restaurant where I once again ordered something that I expected would have no seafood. We weren’t anywhere near the ocean, but that didn’t stop the ocean gods from frowning on my meal. I just gave the icky parts to tien and hungrily devoured the rest.

Tien was really cold on the way Home so we went hat shopping. We ended up not finding anything and just went back to the hotel. I put my computer to work backing up the files that were on the crashing disk, cuddled up with tien under two heavy blankets and fell fast asleep in the cold and quiet.

Heading out for Nha Trang

Tuesday morning at breakfast Tien’s mom brought over a young boy who was big for his age. His older sister showed up soon afterwards and we all ate some snacks. They were Tiens cousins and I recognized their father from our engagement party when he came to pick them up on his scooter.

We returned home, packed for our trip to Nha Trang, had lunch and caught the bus right outside Tien’s house at 2pm.

The bus was not the usual bus service we take, Mai Linh. It took a different route through narrow back country roads that were more jungly than the main roads. I recognized the route from the trip we took where the man was joking about fighting with me. The bus seemed to be going pretty fast but that may just be because the road was so narrow. After a while we got to an area with muddy dirt roads with huge puddles and many bumps.

The driver turned on some pop Vietnamese music and I wondered what a Vietnamese reggae fusion would sound like.

I got out a book, Iron Orchard, and read. Brianna had found the book on the street and gave it to me. It was entertaining light reading that was good for a trip. After we stopped for a break I continued reading until it was too dark, then I just enjoyed music and watched the lights pass in the darkness.

We came upon an accident, the first serious one I’ve seen in Vietnam so far. The diver of a large truck was standing by the back where a bloody man was wallowing in pain on the ground. His motorbike was stuck between the front and rear axels and there was an anonymous pool of liquid coming from the darkness under the truck. I wasn’t sure if he was the only passenger.

Tien looked at the scene then looked away with a shriek. She looked at me with worried eyes and said “He died.” I thought this was an odd way to say it. Later I came to the conclusion that her phrase told a story from a scene that she hadn’t experienced which was why it sounded weirder than saying “he is dead.” I told her that he hadn’t died. The bus drove on and I never heard a siren or saw an ambulance.

As we came into Saigon it was clear that it had been raining hard. Pools of water were standing near intersections and the sidewalk by the river was reflecting the tail lights of motorbikes that rode down it.

The ride seemed endless and my ass hurt from having my buttock muscle stretched in the same position in that tiny seat for so long. We rode through some interesting neighborhoods in Saigon including going over a bridge that we’d seen near the new roads on our way out of town last time. Eventually we arrived at the bus station where we caught a taxi to a hotel I’d stayed at once before, the Bui Phan. The issue with the bed bugs at the ruby star made us not want to go back there, plus I wanted a bath tub.

The hotel was conveniently right next door to Viva Coffee, so we ate there for dinner. In Vietnam, most cafes are also restaurants. Tien’s mom called up worried and told us that the weather was bad in Nha Trang. Her mom worries about everything, but this time she was right. The latest AP headline read something about 32 people being dead from flooding up towards Hanoi. There was a photo o a man motorbiking in Nha Trang in over a foot of water that covered a whole street, and it was still raining.

Wednesday morning I got out of bed, picked up my laptop and found tiny bugs crawling on it. The Bui Phan had them as well… On top of that there was heavy construction going on outside our hotel.

Tien and I had a late breakfast and talked about cultural differences like how multicultural different cultures are and how conservative they are. Afterwards we went online and looked up new destinations. Traveling as a pair was expensive and airfare was also looking more expensive because it was nearing time for peoples fall and winter getaways. We thought about going to Thailand and I even got in touch with a friend of a Sara’s whose family owns a resort north of Phuket. We didn’t decide on anything then.

Instead we went out for a walk to look for an external hard disk that I’d meant to install in my laptop before leaving America. As we left the hotel I saw a Yamaha R6 parked at the motorbike shop next door. It was remarkable because nobody rides anything over about 110cc in Vietnam and this was at least 600. Also, almost nobody rides real motorcycles, just scooters which are more practical.

We walked a long way stopping at computer shops and explaining to them what exactly I was looking for, a FireWire 2.5″ SATA external hard drive case. Amazingly this was t all that hard. For one, I had one with me so I could just show them and then point out that I just needed the case, a d two, there were plenty of computer part shops with drive cases. To my dismay, none had FireWire ones so I had to settle for USB. the sad life of a technology enthusiast.

On the way home I saw a shirt that said “Hollister California” and hated fashion. What on earth is so great about Hollister? I’d never liked that brand and I liked it even less knowing that it could be found in Vietnam, knock-off or not.

Back at the hotel a confusing technological coincidence happened where my old 500gb drive had mysteriously quit working while we were out looking for a new case, which meant I didn’t even need a new case. It also meant I had lost all of my photos and music. On top of that, I broke my only screwdriver while I was right in the middle of investigating the problem so I had a pile of computer parts on a hotel bed and no way to assemble them.

Day to day in Binh Hoa

Friday we woke up and did some internet stuff. I was catching up on a lot of Internet in the morning. Tien got me a breakfast sandwich and made me a banana and strawberry smoothie. What a lucky guy I am, my fiance bringing me food at my computer!

Tien found the information we needed about how to get me a drivers license in Vietnam and it was incredibly simple. We headed to Long Xuyen to get the things we needed in order to apply for it: a photograph of 20x23mm and a notarized translation of my CA driver’s license. We also cruised around to look for a DC power adapter since I forgot the one that goes with the WRT54G that I brought from America. We found one near a park, and after buying it I decided to go take some photos in the park. I was looking for high places to photograph down from in order to make the miniature perspective of the tilt/shift work, so we also headed up to the Panda Cafe on the 6th floor of a building overlooking a main intersection and had some drinks and took some more photos from there. We then cruised down to a local market area, past a block full of flower vendors that smelled a lot like San Jose smells in the spring. I told Tien about this as we were passing through. We picked up some stuff for Thu and headed home to spend the evening hanging out with her family. I tried to hook up the WRT54G and found that the power adapter did not work.

Saturday morning we woke up and headed straight to the translation service and then to the police station. It was a day for people to drop things. While we were riding along I saw three people drop things off of their motorbikes. I’ve also noticed that school is in session now because the streets are full of uniformed students. The girls look beautiful in their all-white traditional clothes, and the boys have a classic schoolboy look in their blue pants, white shirts and red ties. Most of them ride bicycles to school, some hitching rides with others or on motorbikes.

When we got to the police station they informed us that they couldn’t give me a driver’s license unless my visa was good for at least 3 more months. This was mildly disappointing and I couldn’t help but wonder if it was a subtle attempt at extortion. I didn’t care enough to find out so we left and went to have brunch at a cafe where we often used to go to surf the net. The food was OK and the drinks were great. We talked about our plans to travel to Nha Trang and possibly to Thailand, what else we would do while I was here, and about whether or not I would return to the USA on Nov 25th, which I think is likely.

We went and swapped the power adapter for one that we thought should work even though it was slightly underpowered, cruised the 20 minutes home from Long Xuyen and found that it did not work. I really didn’t think it would be so hard to find a 12v 500mA DC adapter, but surprise surprise, Vietnam is full of surprises.

That evening we went out in the neighborhood for a walk. We stopped at a little cafe where some locals were watching a ridiculous television show. We ate ice cream and mosquitoes ate me. My ice cream was one of those triple flavors, chocolate, mint and durian. That was interesting… it’s the first time I’ve had durian since I knew it was the “stinky fruit.” It definitely has a very, very odd and distinct flavor and scent.

Tien and I ate dinner on the floor with her mom and sister that evening. I was a little melancholy and I think this made them slightly uncomfortable, but it’s not like we could talk about it. The side-effects of not being able to speak to anybody except Tien were beginning to get to me.

Aside from nonverbal communication, another thing that was getting to me was a pain I’d had in my ankle. Ever since I got off the plane in Tokyo I had a pretty significant pain in my left ankle. I thought it might be a pulled muscle or a bruise on my ankle, but the more I had thought about it the more I thought it might be something with my ligaments. It is a pain stretching from the middle of my shin on the inside, down to the top part of my ankle joint, and also is affected by the arch of my foot. Tien gave me a massage and rubbed some Ben Gay™ that her brother in law had brought from america and that made it feel much better, though not healed.

Sunday morning I woke up at 7:15, which is early for me. While Tien and I were at the market having breakfast I saw a shirt that said “Do u know now much plannet u mean to me” and thought that was pretty funny. We talked a bit about where we wanted to go on a trip, and afterwards we headed to Long Xuyen to find yet another power adapter.

After visiting about 10 stores we finally tracked down a 498mA power adapter and decided to buy it even though the man at the shop said it was not very good quality. We took a back road to get back to the main road which I always enjoy because I like seeing new areas. The road took us by the river and on the way we found a crowd of people standing at the waters edge. They weren’t celebrating, but they weren’t frantic either. Tien listened to what they were saying and told me that a child had fallen into the river.

A man away from the crowd began to shout, but nobody payed attention. I thought this was interesting because it seems that Vietnamese people shout a lot. This ended up being one of those “never cry wolf” situations because he was trying to tell them he saw something in the water. A few more people also began shouting and soon a teenage boy ran over and jumped in the water to look for the child there. Several people swam along the shore, which dropped off very steeply, and were diving under looking for the child. We stayed a while but the child was never found…

I had talked to Tien before about how children here are not taught to swim which leads to many of them drowning, and here was a real life example of such a tragedy. I feel stupid and ashamed that I never thought about the fact that the children in Tien’s family can’t swim and it wasn’t until a few days later that one of her other family members suggested that they be put in swimming lessons. Tien couldn’t swim when I met her, and I wondered if anybody else in her family could.

When we got home I tried the power adapter on the wireless router and it was too unstable and thus did not work. I decided to give up on the whole thing, I’ll just mail the power adapter once I get back to the USA.

That night I opened a bottle of Da Lat red and had wine with dinner. It was the first wine I’d had since leaving California and it was delicious and familiar. It felt good to have a familiar taste that is heavily bound to California. That night I slept deeply.

Tien and I had planned to go to Nha Trang on Monday, a beach resort town up towards Danang, but that morning Tien said we weren’t going to go. She had a sore on her mouth and did not want to travel far until it was healed. I wasn’t sure if this was for medical or aesthetic reasons, though I suspected both and agreed.

At breakfast I was trying to teach Ngoc some english words and realized that she had a very difficult time saying words that begin with the letter S. I asked Tien about it and she said there are very few words in Vietnamese that begin with that letter. I thought about phonetics exercises and games that we could do to train her mouth to say english words.

Instead of going to Nha Trang we talked about going back to Mt. Cam where we could hike up the mountain and swim in the pools of the stream that go down from the lake on top of the mountain. We made tentative plans to do this the next day. We also made tentative plans to teach Ngoc and Nhi how to swim in the pool in Long Xuyen.

We had lunch and I wondered about why there were no tuk tuk’s in Vietnam. Tien said that her dad and brother both used to be tuk tuk drivers, but a while back the police said that people weren’t allowed to have them anymore. She couldn’t explain the detailed reasons why, but said that one of the reasons was because there were too many motorbikes. I suspected that the tuk tuks were causing accidents or clogged traffic. I found it hard to believe that anything was limited on the streets of Vietnam, it seems like you can ride whatever you can build on the street.

That afternoon was very uneventful and empty, and the boredom of Binh Hoa began to set in. We were going nowhere and I couldn’t talk to anybody except Tien. I was sitting idle and feeling like I was wasting away. Tien and her sisters decided that evening that we would go to a Catholic All Saints Day festival that was going on up the highway. I wasn’t in much of a mood to go by this point, but it was better than sitting at home and I was up for anything at that point.

The crowd was huge. People were filling up the little two lane highway and vendors came to sell flashy lights, stuffed animals, foods, all sorts of trinkets and just about anything. There were hundreds of people walking along the highway buying things, chatting, riding bikes, talking on cell phones, etc.. Some were going to the graveyard to burn incense and light candles for their loved ones. Very few were going to church to pray.

I felt very uncomfortable in that crowd. It was like being so famous that every single person in the crowd knew me, but I wasn’t famous for necessarily good reasons. And it was like I had a sign around my neck that said “please say hello.” Hundreds of eyes watched me as I did absolutely nothing interesting. People laughed and joked while watching me. Dozens of people shouted “hello” and dozens more said things that I couldn’t understand. If I had been in a better mood I think it might have been OK, but with my frustrations from being so idle I wasn’t really in a good mood for it.

Instead I just tried to take photos of stuff, but was uninspired. The night was also very dark and it was hard to get a clear picture. We went to the church and I took some photographs of that, lamenting that I had no tripod. I resolved to buy one or make one.

The incense at the church smelled wonderful on the air and there was a full moon.

That night I talked briefly with Tien about how I was frustrated with the inability to communicate and the fact that we weren’t finding anything to do except be lazy at home. We decided to go ahead and go to Nha Trang.

Returning to Binh Hoa and Long Xuyen

Wednesday we got breakfast at a new place. It was in the tourist area in Pham Ngu Lao and had a menu in English, French and Vietnamese. We both ordered orange juice that was fresh squeezed and not sweetened. Its natural flavor was delicious and a nice contrast to the MSG overload from the previous night. The food was so so, you really can’t male a tomato omelet too bad or too good.

We headed back to the hotel where I heard from David that he thought he might be contagious and didn’t want to expose us, so he declined a meeting and wished us well. With that we decided to plan our return to binh hoa. Tien heard that her cousin was driving to Saigon and back that evening. At first we thought this would be great, but she changed her mind after hearing that there were many people coming along because it was a bus. She said that because we would be guests it would be a cultural obligation for us to buy food for everybody, which would be fine if it were just a few people in the car, but not with a bus full of people. We decided to get bus tickets instead. She arranged them, we packed our bags, checked out and headed off to the bus stop in a taxi.

The taxi took a route that was unfamiliar, through new, wide streets with overpasses and bridges over a river. It was unlike any roads I’d seen in Saigon. It was modern, something I’d expect to find in Hanoi. It made me happy to see Saigon taking on this sort of project.

We were dropped off at a bus stop that I don’t think we’ve ever been to before. After getting our tickets we had thirty minutes left so we got food and coffee. This may have been the dirtiest bus stop I’ve ever seen, but the food and coffee were delicious.

We boarded our bus and it was very familiar. It’s interesting to be familiar with something when you don’t understand any of the words that are being said there. I doubt I could navigate this bus system myself. Incidentally though, the man sitting next to me spoke English, which may be a first for Vietnamese buses. Tien and I played wurdle until the bus pulled out of the parking lot, which felt like it was pocked with craters. The music went on and tien fell asleep. I wrote this, and now the man on my right and tien on my left are Leaning their heads on my shoulder as I peck away on my iPhone. I wonder if the camera on the iPhone has a wide enough angle to capture this scene…

Our bus stopped at the usual spot to refuel and let us all move our legs, freshen up and get food. Tien and I ordered pho and it was absolutely delicious. This was great not only because I have a head cold, but I have had a long string of mediocre or bad pho for I don’t know how long. Coffee and tea were also nice. We headed off again and got to Binh Hoa after dark.

Mai and Thu met us down the street from Tien’s house with motorbikes and rode us home where the family was waiting. It was really great to see everybody and to be home. Tien and I sat in the living room with her mother and sisters and nieces enjoying each other’s company and catching up on the last few days. I passed out some gifts I had brought from America, jewelry for the ladies and Jelly Bellies for the kids. Tien’s brother said that he was raising frogs. Everybody thought I should take medicine for my cough and that I should eat food, but honestly I wasn’t hungry. Tien warmed some water for me, I took a shower and passed out. It’s amazing how traveling can wear you out sometimes.

I had a good night’s sleep despite that I had to wake up and pee twice during the night. At Tien’s house this isn’t such a simple thing. You have to unlock this huge steel gate and slide it back, which makes a loud screeching metal sound. The day was already warming up and I took a cold shower that felt nice.

Tien’s sister in law was out on the back porch mincing a bunch of tiny fish. I had seen a slap-chop in CA before I left and thought it might be a good gift. I still wonder how it would’ve gone over…

Tien and I went to the market for breakfast and had hu tieu and coffee. Familiar food and familiar faces. Afterwards we went to see Thu’s new house being built. It is a two story brick and cement house at the edge of the market in Binh Hoa, about a city block from Tien’s parents house. Later Tien would show me a rendering of what it will look like and it looks pretty cool. It has an upstairs patio, which I love. Thu found one that is similar but looks different and more to her liking, but the builders say they can’t make changes after they’ve started building.

We headed back through the market and went shopping for fruits and vegetables. This is an open air market with fruits and meats laying out in the open air. There were several fruits that I didn’t recognize. Thu bought one and cut it up for us to eat and it was very delicious. It tasted like a grapefruit but had a much thicker rind. In fact, it did end up being a grapefruit, but not the ones commonly seen in America.

We headed home and took a nap. I couldn’t sleep much so I played Field Runners, which I haven’t played in a long time and not since they upgraded some features. Tien gave me a massage, one of the things I really missed.

That evening we went to Long Xuyen and had dinner on a boat that cruised up and down the river. It was fun, but the boat was really loud and vibrated a lot. Nhi’s spoon kept shaking in her bowl, I guess she had the epicenter of the vibrations below her. I spotted a medkit and felt like I was in a video game.

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.