A Travellerspoint blog

This is Vietnam (Part 3)

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If you have not read Part 2, click here.
If you have not read Part 1, click here.
To view the photos from Hoi An and northern Vietnam, click here, or continue reading!

Our first major stop after the central highlands was Hoi An, a charming riverside town famous for silk. Handmade, colorful silk lanterns illuminate the streets and riverfront at night, creating a warm, pleasant atmosphere. During the day, the aesthetic of old, clapboard or stone buildings, which line Hoi An's narrow streets, is equally enjoyable, and we spent a lot of time walking and taking photos. Most of the buildings are restaurants, or souvenir or silk shops, but they are beautiful nonetheless. There is also an old, wooden bridge and several temples that are worth the look as well. On one afternoon we rented bicycles and rode out to a nearby beach. Though the weather was cloudy and windy and therefore not suitable for sunbathing and relaxing, we enjoyed a beautiful ride through nearby towns, along the riverside, and through rice paddies. Although it is overrun with tourists, Hoi An maintains its charm, and one can easily spend several days there (which we did).

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From Hoi An we took a 19-hour bus ride to Hanoi. This was our first experience on a Vietnam sleeper bus, which basically consists of some 40 or so narrow beds and a bathroom that are crammed into the space of a regular coach bus. We felt fortunate to not be very tall, since there isn't a lot of leg room on these buses. Although being reclined helped with sleep, we didn't have the option of sitting upright, which actually made the journey worse at times. Overall, however, the buses are not that bad (save the mysterious thief that moved through our bus collecting mp3 players and phones from sleeping victims... Nothing was taken from us this time).

Hanoi was as expected, a large, bustling city not unlike HCMC. We weren't really interested in sticking around, but the city acted as a base for our next stops to Halong Bay and Ninh Binh. We did, however, enjoy the famous water puppet theatrical performance, which was surprisingly entertaining.

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Halong Bay vs. Ninh Binh

No trip to Vietnam is complete without a stop in the famous Halong Bay, or so they say. Every hotel and tour company offers a range of ridiculously overpriced accommodation, food, and sightseeing options for visiting the bay, but the real draw is the lazy boat ride amongst massive limestone cliffs too numerous to count that shoot up from the sea. It really is a sight to behold, and in hindsight, would have made an excellent day trip. However, with so many dazzling tour options and all of the locals raving about Halong Bay, it's hard not to get caught up in the hype. Plus, we liked the idea of spending two nights sleeping on a boat at sea, which was one of the mid-range options.

For our tour, we chose a step up from the "party boat," which is the entry level $80 tour, which mostly attracts single backpackers and North American frat boys. We paid about $110 each (yikes!!!) for a "three-day," two-night tour that promised excellent food, cave exploration, and kayaking, as well as accommodation on the boat in charming wooden cabins (the photos even showed silk tablecloths and flowers on the beds!). We were picked up from our guesthouse early in the morning and driven about three or more hours to the bay. We were paired up with another couple, who were on the same tour, but aside from the four of us, everyone on our bus had signed up for the two-day, one-night tour. Nevertheless, after a lot of confusion, backtracking, panicked phone calls, and the mysterious disappearance of one of our guides, we were all shuffled onto the same boat, which, strangely enough, was anchored in a harbor miles away from the other boats. The first activity of the day was meant to be lunch, but when we entered the dining room, there were tables set for everyone minus four, which was the first hint that those of us on the longer tour were on the wrong boat. Moreover, we were informed that there wasn't enough food and wound up having to wait several extra hours in the harbor while the staff went shopping and prepared extra lunch. In the meantime, we were informed that a storm was approaching and we may have to sleep in a hotel on land, as opposed to the boat. Apparently the government doesn't allow boats to stay at sea during bad weather, since in the past, boats have sank and tourists were killed, or at least that's what they told us. Of course, hearing this immediately enraged everyone, especially those that had signed up for only one night on the boat. We remained hopeful, however, that the storm wouldn't come; after all, the weather was calm and sunny. They let us check into our rooms anyway, which were substantially less impressive than the photos.

When we finally got started, several hours too late, we were more than impressed with what we saw. The limestone cliffs were stunning, and we enjoyed the afternoon hanging out on the deck, soaking in the sun and the sights, and sipping overpriced beers (Note to travelers: If you're going to Halong Bay, sneak in your own booze! Bring plenty of water, as well. The boats, tourist stops, and floating markets charge ridiculous amounts of money!) Our guide entertained us by finding animal shapes in the cliffs, which the rest of us couldn't see; when we did point out our own interpretations of shapes, he fervently disagreed, saying things like, "you're wrong! It's an elephant, not a turtle." We visited the cave, which was massive and interesting, and offered a cool respite from the heat. Leah was nearly attacked by a monkey, which was more amusing than scary. We also did a little tandem kayaking, which was brief but a lot of fun.

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After a nice dip in the cool waters, we received the news we'd been dreading all day: we had to stay in a hotel, not on the boat. Something definitely seemed strange, perhaps because the weather was calm and the other boats didn't seem in a hurry to go ashore. Or, maybe because, with every phone call to his boss, our guide changed his mind about where we should sleep. The whole situation seemed strange and was very frustrating and disappointing for all parties involved. We felt bad for our guide, who acted as liaison between us and the tour company that was clearly responsible for all the hassle. At the end of a very long, grueling debate, we conceded and were shuffled into a small boat and taken ashore. The hotel was nothing special of course, but we survived the calm, storm-less night, free from any dangers (except bed bugs, which one of our traveling companions found in her "three-star" hotel bed).

The next day we parted company with those on the two-day, one-night tour, all of whom would immediately return to Hanoi, full of disappointment and regret. The four of us on the longer tour were taken onto a smaller day boat, and continued our tour of the bay. Although it hadn't rained, it was significantly more overcast than the day before, so the views were less beautiful, but we passed the time with good conversation (and of course the mandatory SE Asian tour side-stop to a floating pearl factory).

The highlight of the day was a 2-hour kayaking trip through caves and into smaller coves. In one such cove, which we accessed by following the current through a low cave, we got stuck trying to fight the tide to get back. Our traveling companions went ahead of us, and just as they were gaining headway, another boat appeared in the narrow canal, forcing them back into the cove. We then went ahead, rowing with all of our strength and, just as our friends before us, we were starting to gain distance when the boat reappeared (this time from behind us) forcing us out of the cave and back into the open cove. We're not sure why the other kayak bothered coming through the cave when they just turned around and left again without enjoying the beauty of the cove. We're also not sure why they felt it necessary to run us all off track. Nevertheless, none of us had the strength to make a second attempt and wound up being pulled through the cave by our tiny little guide. He was barefoot in the water, and cut his foot trying to help us through, which put us even more to shame. Overall, in addition to the challenge, kayaking was a lot of fun, and offered absolutely beautiful views. We were happy to have signed up for the longer tour for this experience alone.

At the end of the day, we were joined on a larger boat with another tour, and suddenly everything made sense... This was the boat from the photos (minus the flowers in the beds)!

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The quality of the previous day's boat, coupled with the mysterious lack of food and space, as well as the disappearance of our guide, could only mean that the four of us had been on the wrong tour from the beginning. The standards of everything -food, service, rooms- went way up the second boat, and we finally felt satisfied. We also met a lot more great people, and spent the evening singing and playing music on the deck with travelers from all over the world, as well as drinking the booze we'd had the foresight to smuggle in. The following morning we journeyed back to shore. By then, there was almost no visibility and the air was really dirty, so our remaining hours on the boat offered little satisfaction.

All in all, Halong Bay was an experience worth having, despite the numerous setbacks and ridiculous costs. However, judging by stories we've heard, it's not unusual to have difficulties like ours, which definitely detract from the overall experience. It should also be noted that the government recently mandated that all the boats in Halong Bay be painted white. So, the photos of charming wooden junk-boats with burgundy trim that charm prospective clients should probably be replaced by images of dirty ships with chipping white paint and deck chairs covered in speckles of spray paint.

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Even though Halong Bay is labeled a "must-see," we think the much-cheaper Ninh Binh is equally, if not more so, worth the trip.

Ninh Binh is a small town about two hours south of Hanoi that can be reached by bus, train, or tour. We tried all of these options, but everything was booked due to the Independence Day holiday, which fell over our time in the north. Luckily, we met up with a friend of ours, and the three of us were able to hire a car/driver for the day for roughly the same price as the tour.

Our driver spoke little English, but was very pleasant and got us where we needed to go. Ninh Binh has some beautiful temples, among the best in Vietnam in our experience, which was our first stop of the morning. With no real time constraints, we spent our time wandering through two adjacent temples and into a little nearby village, where we stumbled upon a third. Despite the oppressive heat, we really enjoyed the stroll. Following the temple, our driver took us on a scenic drive through rice paddies lined with limestone cliffs and small villages. We stopped for lunch in an area known for its burnt rice and pork, which was delicious.

On a side note, Ninh Binh is also known for its dog meat. On our way home, we caught this sight...
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Although our plan had been to rent bicycles and ride through the paddies, we realized that we were short on cash (oops!), and instead we skipped ahead to the reason why we'd come to Ninh Binh: the boat journey. Although at this point in our Vietnam travels we were a little burnt out on boats, our Ninh Binh experience was easily the best we had. We rented a small boat -just the three of us plus the boat driver- for a scenic two-hour ride down a river. Like our drive earlier that day, the river went through rice paddies that were lined on either side by massive limestone cliffs. Unlike Halong Bay, the cliffs were so close to us that we could really appreciate their magnitude and color. Likewise, the paddies were lime green and equally as beautiful. We even rode through three caves. For the entire ride, we were speechless, completely in awe of the beauty around us.

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To our amusement, most of the boat drivers rowed with their feet. One young girl that passed us did so with an umbrella in one hand and her cell phone, which she was madly texting on, in the other. Our own guide was quite pleasant as well, although he hesitated to let us off the boat at the end without a tip (just another example of the cheekiness of Vietnam).

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For a fraction of the price of Halong Bay, Ninh Binh was easily more beautiful (though we did have better luck with weather) and arguably a better experience overall; less tourists and hassle also added to our satisfaction. Although Halong Bay remains the number one draw to the north, Ninh Binh could easily surpass it, and we highly recommend it to anyone passing through.

To view the photos from Hoi An and northern Vietnam, click here.

Posted by colinandleah 03:33 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

This is Vietnam (Part 2)

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On communism & culture:

Most notably, there are signs and billboards everywhere, which serve to remind the people of their social responsibilities, as well as laws and newly-acquired privileges. In more remote areas, we saw billboards informing the people of their rights to home ownership and marriage. Many display just text, while others contain images; most incorporate the sickle and hammer, as well as Ho Chi Minh's likeness. One popular billboard is an illustration of several smiling citizens of various ages standing behind a stern but protective-seeming soldier gazing into the distance.

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Similarly, there is an obviously strong sense of nationalism. In addition to being a very seemingly-proud people, the Vietnam flag flies on almost every street corner. In one village we passed, there was a flag hanging on every single door.

There is a strong police/military presence, especially in the south, though they do not always carry weapons. While they're not particularly friendly, the police are also not intimidating; they are just simply there.

Vietnam seems to be more than compensating for past criticism from the international community for stifling religion. There are churches and temples everywhere, many of which are newly-built and have become major tourist attractions. The people seem to be hungry for religion as well. In the central highlands, we passed Christian churches so overflowing with people trying to hear the sermon that they were standing in groups by the hundreds on the grounds or streets outside.

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There is little deviation in architectural style (which may also explain why religious buildings, which tend to be fairly elaborate, are popular attractions). Most government buildings -schools, hospitals, military centers, etc.- were built in a similar style. Likewise, houses, although the style varies from village to village, are all relative in size, color, and style.

Most of the smaller towns and villages are centered around massive loudspeakers that blare daily messages or reminders. In more remote areas, they play soothing melodies periodically throughout the day.

Although commerce seems to drive society, and many people have fallen naturally into the role of the entrepreneur, there does not seem to be a lot of competition amongst businesses or business owners. Whereas in other countries multiple people will harass you simultaneously to buy goods, in Vietnam, they tend to back off if you're already talking to someone (that is to say, they don't try to steal business from one another, although they do like to work together to try to cheat the tourists).

While they're not always particularly warm to outsiders, there is a strong camaraderie amongst the Vietnamese people. Especially in the smaller villages, where there is an even stronger sense of community, the people seem to share most responsibilities and rewards. Although the philosophy that it takes a village to raise a child prevails throughout Asia, it seems to be a daily practice in Vietnam.

Vietnam Part 2

If you have not read Vietnam Part 1, click here.
Click here to view our photos from the central highlands (unfortunately, they're out of order again... perhaps photobucket was a mistake!), or continue reading.

On the bus ride from the airport in HCMC to our guesthouse, we remarked in awe about the cleanliness of the city, the large number of swanky cafes, restaurants, and boutique shops, and the presence of international brands, like Gucci and Samsung. Colin, who traveled in Vietnam six years ago, noted that the city had undergone many changes toward development. Although the government's goal to industrialize by 2020 had seemed far-reaching, Leah was worried that, as with Korea, sudden rapid development had destroyed the cultural nuances that make a country unique (and perhaps, like in Shanghai, China, left a giant corporate mall instead). Of course, as noted in Part 1, HCMC is not as sparkling and refined as the airport perimeter would suggest. Furthermore, overall,Vietnam has a long way to go in its development. As such, we were able to get a proper taste of the "real Vietnam," particularly in our travels through its mountain villages and towns.

From Muine, we boarded a bus to Dalat in the central highlands of Vietnam. This was the starting point from which we would travel through the mountains, as far off the beaten path as possible, to try to get a sense of local village life. Dalat was a lovely little town with cool temperatures, good pho, and locals who weren't interested in pestering us to buy useless trinkets. There were a lot of foreigners, though significantly fewer than Saigon and Muine, but we wound up meeting some really great people. We stayed only two nights, allowing ourselves one full day of exploration. Dalat itself had quite a view tourist attractions, but they all seemed too kitschy for our tastes; not wanting a repeat of Malaysia, we decided just to rent a motorbike and cruise through the mountains, enjoying the stunning views. At one point on our journey, we did stop at a waterfall. After we'd paid the entrance fee, we discovered that the waterfall itself was fairly small and unimpressive, and the park where it was located was decorated in an American cowboy and Indian theme. After that, we avoided the tourist spots. We wound up resting in a quiet tea house with incredible views.

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From Dalat, we took a local bus through the mountains toward Lake Lak. Luckily, our seats weren't too uncomfortable, and we had the front window view of the beautiful landscape. Although the journey was bumpy, we enjoyed every minute of it; the aesthetic of the central highlands is quite unlike any mountain landscape we've seen. We wanted to take photos, but pulling out cameras on a local bus is never a good idea.

When we arrived in Lake Lak, we knew we were moving away from the touristy spots because we weren't greeted at the bus by fifteen guys on motorbikes offering to take us to this or that hotel. Actually, we were the only ones that got off our bus, and we quickly discovered that there was no one else around. We walked for awhile until we came to a rather large tourist "resort" on the lake, which was overpriced and seemed empty of patrons anyway. However, they were able to confirm that there was a traditional longhouse available for rental further up the lake. It started raining, but we set out anyway, walking over 2 km around the lake. Again, we were disappointed that we couldn't take out our cameras, because the lake was beautiful in the rain and everyone we passed, mostly farmers and men and women bundling grains that had been spread across the road to dry, warranted a photo. Eventually we came to a little restaurant, where we would also rent the longhouse, and they ushered us inside and gave us hot coffee. When the rain stopped, we were driven on the backs of motorbikes 500 meters up a road lined with traditional houses to the one that we would be sleeping in for the night. It was exactly as you would expect, a long, narrow house made entirely of wood. Inside, were several mattresses on the floor covered with mosquito nets (Lake Lak is a malaria hotspot so we were thankful for the nets and applied bug spray constantly). Although not the most comfortable accommodation, especially given the creepy outhouse, which crawled with various insects and lizards (or at least significantly more than usual), it was fun to stay in a traditional house in a local village.

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We spent the rest of the day wandering around the lake and exploring the nearby villages. Lake Lak is absolutely stunning, and the rain only enhanced its beauty. The colors were so vivid!

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Most of the homes were in the similar longhouse style. Children played with sticks and balls or cycled through the streets. We watched a spirited football game for awhile in one of the fields where cows had been grazing earlier that day. Older men and women sat on their porches, while the younger ones worked in the fields or markets. Most people didn't seem too bothered with us wandering around, though we always try to remain respectful and not snap too many photos.

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One particularly interesting and very friendly man, whom we suspect was probably intoxicated, followed Colin for awhile, blathering away in Vietnamese. Eventually, we pieced together that he was inviting us to dinner, but we declined since he was clearly not in the right frame of mind. We wound up having a dinner, which was meant to be "traditional and delicious," back at the restaurant where we'd rented the longhouse; it was okay, tasty enough but a little overpriced and not necessarily authentic. We probably should've stuck with local street food.

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The next day, we continued our exploration of the central highlands by moving onto Buon Ma Thuot, a small city deeper into the mountains. The longhouse had directed us to a guesthouse there, which was fortunate, because we probably would not have otherwise found a place to stay. Although the city is quite large, it is not touristy. In fact, we only saw one other foreigner during the two days that we stayed there. This town is famous for its coffee, so, upon arriving and settling into the hotel, we set off straight away in pursuit of a cup. What we got was not coffee so much as liquid crack. It was literally a thick, almost gel-like substance that could have easily been the equivalent of 8 or 9 espresso shots. This was probably the first cup of coffee Leah has ever declined to drink. Colin, on the other hand, polished his off, then spent the rest of the day feeling jittery and uneasy.

We really enjoyed the little city. Again, the people did not seem too bothered with us, but they were not unfriendly. The night market had a lot of energy. We found a "make your own spring rolls" restaurant where we ate twice, really enjoying the heaps of various greens and fresh vegetables, tofu, and pork rolled in rice paper and dipped in homemade peanut sauce. They were delicious!

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We spent a day once again exploring the nearby villages. Because many of the villages require permits to visit, we were limited in our options and wound up in a slightly more touristy village (although there weren't many tourists), but it was enjoyable nonetheless.

Following Buon Ma Thout, we continued through the highlands to a small town called Pleiku. Here, we had planned to meet a couple of friends who were also traveling in Vietnam. Choosing Pleiku as a meeting place was based entirely on its proximity from where we were coming from in the south and where our friends were coming from in the northeast. In fact, everything we'd read about Pleiku was that there is absolutely no reason to go there, but we figured being that far off the beaten path would give us a taste of the real Vietnam. It certainly did! It wound up being a great little town and an unusual experience.

We met our friends at the bus station and asked a taxi driver to take us to any hotel nearby. He wound up driving for ages, passing by numerous hotels and ignoring our efforts to make him stop. Eventually, he brought us to a hotel in what seemed like a lively enough area. We were satisfied that there would at least be food options. We checked in, then went straight into what appeared to be the town square for dinner. We of course selected an outdoor street restaurant and had an excellent pho. We hung around the square for awhile, drinking 40 cent beers until one by one the restaurants closed up and everyone seemed to disappear. This was disappointing because it was still early and we weren't ready to call it a night. We wandered around the town for while, finding another street side watering hole and temporarily adopting a cat, which we rescued from a sealed bag under the table at our restaurant (we're not sure what it was meant for, but the woman seemed happy enough to give it away, dropping it into a plastic bag like a bunch of bananas... Needless to say, we set it free). When we were finally convinced that there was nowhere left to go in the seemingly dead town, we set off back toward our hotel; at this point, it was about 12:30 am. When we rounded the corner to the town square, we were surprised to see a bustling produce market had appeared seemingly from nowhere. The area that had previously been scattered with restaurants was now covered with individual stalls containing heaping piles of fruits and vegetables run by little, crooked, old women. Like the floating market, this one had a lot of energy, but was unique because it ran from about midnight to five a.m. Despite what the guidebooks say, a stop in Pleiku is definitely worth it for the experiences of the night market and street restaurants alone... Unfortunately, we did not have our camera with us, so no photos!

Please click here to view our photos from the central highlands, and check back soon for the rest of our stories and photos from Vietnam.

Posted by colinandleah 19:24 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

This is Vietnam (Part 1)

Observations on Culture and Communism in Vietnam

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Click here to view photos from Ho Chi Minh City, Mekong Delta, and Muine, Vietnam... Or continue reading!

Vietnam was a beautiful country with a whole lot more to see and do than we could have possibly fit into a month. We flew from KL to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south and traveled north to Hanoi, totaling about 56 hours in buses and cars over the course of four weeks. Most of what we saw and did was really interesting, and we were in constant awe of the breathtaking landscape. Unfortunately, our interactions with the people did not contribute to our excitement about the country. Although there were exceptions (and we did meet a few genuinely kind people), in the best moments, we were treated with indifference, and in the worst, we were confronted with racism, lying, cheating, and stealing. We know these behaviors were directed at foreigners, and we have tried to analyze and understand why, but without much success. The xenophobia we experienced was especially disappointing for Leah, who, as anyone who knows her knows, has waited most of her adult life to travel in Vietnam and believes that the only way to truly experience a country and its culture is through fellowship with its people. Nevertheless, although we remained largely on the outside looking in, we did our best to try to understand and appreciate the culture. Below is a breakdown of what we saw and did in Vietnam, as well as some commentary on its culture.

Ho Chi Minh, like most cities, is large, noisy, dirty, and chaotic. There are about ten times as many motorbikes on the streets as other Asian countries where motorbikes are the main mode of transport (with the possible exception of Phnom Penh, Cambodia), making it nearly impossible to cross at busier intersections. Nevertheless, we did our best to experience the city on foot, navigating our way through a maze of streets that didn't seem to reflect the map, stopping constantly to ask for directions. The architecture was somewhat interesting, far more beautiful lit up at night, save the newly-built Bitexco Financial Tower, which is a bit of an eyesore towering over an otherwise low city. We were most impressed by the numerous beautifully-manicured parks and public art everywhere.

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We spent an afternoon in the War Remnants Museum, which was of course fascinating and heart wrenching. Leah appreciated that the first exhibit in the museum is a wall of photos, letters, news clippings, and the like reflecting American dissent about the war. This seemed to suggest that Vietnam recognizes that not all Americans were in support of the atrocities committed during the war, which are reflected throughout the museum (unlike, for example, the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum in Nagasaki, Japan, which Leah remembers as seeming to hold all Americans in a negative light).

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Additionally, in HCMC, we made some new friends, went to an art show opening about motorbike culture in Vietnam, and ate some delicious foods.

Our next stop was a tour of the Mekong Delta. We generally try to avoid tours, since we don't like to be packed into mini buses, herded like cattle through a bunch of boring side trips, then rushed through the interesting main attractions, but we thought this might be the easiest way to visit the river. We signed up for a 2-day, 1-night tour, since this was the only option for visiting a floating market, which we were both the most excited about.

The tour got off to a rocky start when the guide decided that he didn't like Leah, who has developed a mild claustrophobia from being packed with 40 other people into too many buses designed for 12, for requesting to sit in a front seat. Although we had made prior seating arrangements with the tour company and even shown up an hour early to secure the seats, the tour guide handed out his own arbitrary seating assignments and was furious to have them challenged. Although it would have been a simple matter of switching two seats, the guide didn't know how to handle the request and decided instead to start yelling and threaten to leave us behind. Although this inability to think outside the box prevails throughout Asia (and we say this not with prejudice but with almost five years experience living here), we have noticed that the Vietnamese people in particular aren't good with handling special requests. Colin suspects this comes from generations of living under communism, where basically you get what you get, and the people have learned not to challenge this.

Many of our conversations have gone something like this...

Leah (trying her best to sound sweet and non-confrontational) : Excuse me, ma'am, but it says on the menu that the salad comes with cheese, but there's no cheese on my salad.

Server (in a western tourist restaurant): Salad change. No cheese.

Leah: You changed the salad?

Server: Yes, no cheese.

Leah: But it doesn't say that on the menu. And you didn't tell me when I ordered it.

Server: Okay, but no cheese.

Leah: But I ordered the salad because I wanted cheese.

Server: Yes, but salad change. No cheese.

Leah: Well, do you have cheese?

Server: Yes, we have.

Leah: Well, can I have some?

Server: No. Salad has no cheese.

Leah: Yes, but it doesn't say that on the menu. So can I have some cheese, please?

Server: No. Salad has no cheese.

You get the point. (We will have more to say on this and similar issues regarding our interactions with the people in our next post about Vietnam.)

The first day of our Mekong tour was up and down. We had a couple of silly, but somewhat interesting side-trips to coconut candy and rice noodle factories, and we got to put our fingers into a beehive to retrieve honey. We heard some traditional music, which was quite lovely. We were fascinated by the unique instruments. We saw a temple with two massive stone Buddhas. We had a motor-powered boat tour of a large stretch of the river, where we passed numerous, colorful boats of various sizes and purposes. The highlight of our day was a more leisurely rowboat ride down a smaller portion of the river. We settled for the night in a small riverside town that specializes in frog and field mice delicacies, but we opted for the pizza (at this point in our journey we were craving normal, western food).

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The next morning we set out on a boat to see the floating market, which was the part of the tour that most intrigued us. It certainly made every effort at getting there worthwhile, and easily remains one of the best experiences we had in Vietnam. Early in the morning, farmers and citizens from nearby villages gather together to exchange goods, mostly produce, that is shipped in along the river. Although it has the same excitement and energy of any Asian market, it is entirely on water, which enhances the experience. Larger boats, sometimes houseboats, with massive stacks of fruits and vegetables on the decks are anchored in the water, as people come through on smaller boats to observe the wares. To make purchases, the smaller boats attach themselves to the larger boats, or the people simply toss the produce and money from one boat to the next. Several small boats that function as floating convenience stores, rowed alongside our tourist boat, while women and children attempted to sell us anything from coffee to potato chips to bananas. The floating market was a truly unique and exciting experience.

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On our way back to HCMC following the Mekong Delta tour, we had one more kitschy touristy stop, which turned out to be a really interesting experience: a tropical fruit farm! We saw at least a dozen varieties of fruit, many of which we had never seen before (and will likely never see again). Although Leah took photos of all of them, we won't bore you... However, if you've never seen how a pineapple grows, you might be surprised!

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After the fruit farm, we returned to HCMC, picked up our bags, and boarded an evening bus to Muine, a small beach town five hours northeast. After taking mostly local buses in Indonesia and Malaysia, this was the first large tourist coach bus we'd booked and, even though it was packed full of locals, not tourists, we settled in comfortably and unfortunately, lazily, with our defenses down. This bus, we suspect, is where our money was stolen, although we didn't notice until three days later. At one point during the journey, however, Leah thought she saw the boy behind her pulling her bag from under the seat. Though she was not entirely sure this was the case, he did look startled and guilty when she caught him. She checked her bag, but, not wanting to draw attention to the money, didn't open the wallet. However, everything in the bag seemed to be in-tact. In hindsight, the boy was probably putting the bag back after taking the money. We can never know for sure. When we did discover the money was missing, we were both really angry at ourselves for not taking better precautions, which we know to do after having traveled for so many years. This will surely never happen again.

Not discovering the missing money right away was fortunate because it didn't ruin our mini-holiday. Muine was great! We were lucky to find a quiet little $10 guesthouse with a pool on the best stretch of white sand beach the area had to offer. We settled in for a few days to catch up on phone calls, emails, blog updates, and photos, detox from the dirty cities of KL and HCMC, and recover from the fatigue of so many weeks of constantly moving and fighting our way through SE Asia. Our guesthouse offered a quiet respite, and was conveniently located just across the street from the Fairy Stream and Red Canyon, a beautiful river walk through towering red sandstone cliffs. We were also close to the fishermen's village, which added to our experience of Vietnam on water and provided an excellent dinner of fresh fish.

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Please click here to view our photos from HCMC, Mekong, and Muine, and check back soon for the rest of our stories and photos from Vietnam.

Posted by colinandleah 05:59 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

All Things Malaysia

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For some reason our photos from Malaysia uploaded in reverse order and we can't seem to correct the problem. It might be helpful to read the blog to understand the photos. However, if you'd prefer to just view them, click here.

ALL THINGS MALAYSIA...

Malaysia was a somewhat interesting developing country, though it had very little to offer in terms of natural or cultural stimulation, and in hindsight, we should've booked our trip for one, not two weeks. Though the countryside was beautiful, it had nothing on Indonesia (or for that matter, Korea), and most of the sightseeing was very kitschy and touristy. Our largest enjoyment, therefore, was our interactions with the people, who were for the most part very kind and accommodating. We even saved ourselves a few bucks by hitchhiking a lot of places since we were always guaranteed to be picked up.

Malaysians consist of the native Malay people, as well as Indians and Chinese, who were brought by the British when they colonized the country. The cities and towns were largely segregated with obvious districts such as Chinatown and Little India; however, we did observe some cross-cultural interactions. As usual, it was the game of football (soccer, for our American readers) that inspired the largest mix of races, and Colin had the experience of enjoying a game with several locals in a small town restaurant.

We also really enjoyed the food, indulging daily on curries and samosas and tandoori mutton. The alcohol was really expensive, averaging about $9 for a bottle of beer, so we washed down our grub with 50 cent freshly-squeezed fruit juices from street vendor stalls. (On a side note, while we happily refrained from drinking for several weeks in Indonesia and Malaysia, we are now in Vietnam where 50 cents is the price of a beer, so we're likewise happily indulging again.)

With two weeks to wander the country, we managed to find several things to do. Some were more interesting than others and most were a bit anti-climactic, but we had fun nevertheless.

We began our trip in Penang, which is a small island off the coast of peninsular Malaysia; we flew there from Sumatra. We spent a day wandering the main city of Georgetown, which promised to charm us with its old colonial buildings and ornate Chinese temples. Though we weren't wowed by anything in particular, we enjoyed the walk. The highlight was seeing a temple bustling with religious observers, praying and chanting, and lighting bundles of incense. There were several sticks of massive fiery incense outside that were 8 feet or more tall.

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The next day we crossed the 13 km stretch of sea by ferry to a town called Buttersworth, where we went to a bird park. Although this qualifies as one of those kitschy and touristy things I mentioned, we actually found it really exciting. There were so many beautiful tropical birds we've never seen before and will likely never see again, and many of them were roaming freely throughout the park. (Leah especially loved the birds, so be forewarned that they dominate the photos.)

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When we returned to Penang, we packed up our bags and took the bus to Teluk Bahang, which was meant to be a quaint, charming fishing village. This turned out not to be the case, as the town was actually just a rundown, dirtier extension of the larger Georgetown. (This was the last time we followed Internet leads to places which promised to be "charming.") Regardless, we had a nice two-day visit. We went to a tropical spice garden, and learned about all the medicinal and culinary uses for various herbs and spices. We also went on a nice hike through the tropical Penang National Park, which led to a small, quiet strip of beach where we saw two women in full burka on a jet ski. This was the highlight of the trip for Leah, who had never seen a Muslim beach bunny before.

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When we finally left Penang, we traveled across peninsular Malaysia to the Cameron Highlands, where we stayed in a nice mountain village surrounded by jungles and gorgeous tea fields. We visited the Boh tea plantation while we were there, which was the highlight of our travels in Malaysia. It was stunning. We also went to a butterfly farm, which was more of a break from the heat of the afternoon sun than an enticing tourist experience. Regardless, we saw some interesting butterflies and other species of insects, reptiles, and amphibians. Our final experience in the Highlands was a jungle trek to see the "world's largest flower." We had been looking forward to this, but had to travel to see it as a part of a tour, which made the experience slightly less enjoyable. We also found out after the fact that it was not the world's largest flower, but the world's third largest mushroom; we were more amused than disappointed by this deception.

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The rest of our time in Malaysia was divided between Kuala Lampur and a small town, Selangor, nearby. Selangor is famous for its mangrove trees that attract a species of fireflies. We took a boat tour at dusk to watch as the fireflies lit up strangely in unison creating the illusion of Christmas lights on the trees (Leah was convinced they were) along the river. We had planned to camp in the Selangor National Park, but the campsite was under renovation and we were rained out anyway. Regardless, we had a nice walk through the park, which is a famous bird-watching site. We saw many interesting animals there. Back in Kuala Lampur, we killed the remaining days walking through the city, though sites of interest were limited. We also met up with a friend of ours from Korea, who made the bustling city a more enjoyable place to pass the time. Overall, Malaysia was worth the stopover on our around-the-world trek, but would probably not be our first recommendation for a half-month holiday.

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To view all the photos, click here.

Posted by colinandleah 23:43 Archived in Malaysia Comments (4)

Jungle Photos!

Finally... Pics from the jungles of Sumatra & Lake Toba

sunny 29 °C

Here are photos of our jungle trek in Sumatra, as well as Lake Toba, the largest volcanic lake in the world. Upon leaving Bukit Lawang, where we did our 3-day trek, we took a ferry to Samosir, a large island (the size of Singapore) in the middle of Lake Toba. We spent 5 days and nights relaxing in a little lakeside cottage, swimming, and walking/cycling around the stunning island. Enjoy the photos!

We are currently in Malaysia and will upload stories and photos of our adventures here ASAP!

Posted by colinandleah 01:14 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

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