Sunday, January 29

Nha Trang - Temples and Locals and Wolf, Oh my!

Yes, believe it or not I did go on the trip too... It's just that Jessi has had more time to write about it than I have. But as she keeps reminding me, "We gotta finish this so we can start writing about the present again."

So where were we? Oh, right Nha Trang.

So Monkey Island sucked. But that was just one part of our day tour. There was plenty more in store for us. If you recall, our tour also included a temple and a waterfall.

The temple was awesome. I don't think it was a tourist site - it seemed like it was an actual active hilltop temple. It was really nice to momentarily be in a local setting, seeing local life. It was one of my favorite spots in Vietnam.

The temple. I love the intricate designs.

A Vietnamese Bhudda in front of the temple. He had a view of a valley full of rice paddies.

View from the Buddha (above pic).

These were some local kids who live and worship at the temple.

This is the Bhudda inside the temple. We thought it was funny that it was outlined in flourescent lights. Then we realized that it was just intended to make the Bhudda look more glorious. Kind of like stained glass.

The temple was especially nice because we got to step quietly away from the only other guy on our tour - a Finnish man named Wolf. This guy was just about the worst tour mate for us. We are generally wide-eyed travelers who like to see and experience new things. Wolf, on the other hand, likes to spend his time talking about how many snowmobiles he owns back in Finland. When he's not doing that, he likes to talk about how many houses he owns back in Finland. Occasionally, when he stops talking about Finland, he likes to talk about how many times he's been to Vietnam. And no, he never completely stops talking.

The next stop was a waterfall near the city. This one Jessi and I were particulary excited about, because we wanted to see a little untouched nature to balance out all of the city we had been seeing. We were driving up to the trailhead when a local called out "You can't keep driving, it's washed out." But we didn't want the rain to ruin another piece of our vacation. So we asked the guide if we could make it by walking. We were told it would be a 2k walk down a muddy road. No problem, we think, it'll be worth it to see some Vietnamese countryside and a nice waterfall. So we all set out walking; Jessi and I, and our guide and Wolf. Along the way we saw some great stuff. Local farms, local people... It was a nice walk.

Farmhouse on the side of road. Gorgeous countryside.

Vietnamese woman carrying goods on the road to the waterfall.

Two friendly Vietnamese women with no ulterior motives. None at all.

The local ladies in the picture above were really nice to us. They helped Jessi out through some slippery parts of the walk, they chit chatted, smiled, and laughed. Boy, we were really impressed with their English too! How did two villagers learn English so well? Well, turns out a lot of tourists come through there. They all speak English, and if you wanna hawk sodas to tourists, ya gotta speak English. That's right. After being soooo nice to us on the walk to the falls, they spent the whole walk back telling us "you HAVE to buy sodas, since we helped you out." Ah, Vietnam.

Anyway, back to the waterfall. Actually, through all of this, we never got to see the waterfall. We walked 2k on the dirt road, listening to Wolf bitch and moan about how stupid it was, and how the car should have been able to make it, and how come he had to walk so far, and why had the locals lied to us about the road being washed out (did you see the pictures above? he must not have), before we finally arrived at the trailhead. The guy who owns the waterfall (so much for untouched nature) refused to let us see it because it had been washed out by the rain. We tried bargaining with him, but eventually realized it wasn't going to happen... and honestly, it probably wouldn't have been all that nice. Look how muddy the river was!

Is there water in there too, or just dirt?

It looked like it was glowing brown...

So we left, a little disappointed that we didn't see the waterfall, but satisfied that at least we'd had an adventure. Wolf, on the other hand, was just plain unhappy. He hadn't wanted to walk to the waterfall, and he sure as hell wasn't going to walk back. So he handed his bag to our tour guide, hopped on the back of a passing scooter, and was carted all the way back to the car. Rural Vietnam was a little too much for him. He was much happier and felt "closer to nature" (a direct quote) on Monkey Island. To each his own.


Wednesday, January 25

Nha Trang - Monkey Island

Although Hoi An was definitely a great town, we just didn’t feel like hanging out in the pouring rain, especially since one of the goals of our vacation was to escape from the Seattle weather. Vietnam is similar to California (Ha! Never thought I’d see those words together!) in that the further south you go, the more likely it is you’ll get some good weather. The north is usually cool, grey and rainy, whereas the south is typically warm, sunny and dry. So we headed south to Santa Barbara – I mean, Nha Trang:

The best way to describe Nha Trang is to tell you it is known for one thing: booze cruises. And also lying on the beach and partying, which is basically just a booze cruise on land. (See? Just like Santa Barabara.) We had yet to see the sun, so we couldn’t wait to get to Nha Trang and laze around on the beach.

Famous last words. When we arrived in Nha Trang it was raining, the wind was howling and the ocean was a silty, brownish color. So much for Santa Barbara. Actually, it was a lot like SB – in an El Nino year.

Nha Trang beach

We decided to make the best of it and started looking into things to do in the area. Our guesthouse offered one tour that looked great: it included a visit to Monkey Island, a trip to a pagoda, and a hike to some waterfalls. The description of Monkey Island promised us a "monkey show and thousands of wild monkeys.” We were a little apprehensive about the "monkey show" part, but we found a review in the Lonely Planet online travel forum that said Monkey Island was “top class” so we decided to check it out.

Don't I know you can't believe everything you read online? If “top class” means depressing and disturbing, then they were right on. But I’m getting ahead of myself: The journey to the island was actually kinda nice (if only the journey had been the destination). The boat departed from a wind-swept fishing port surrounded by gorgeous scenery.

No, no, that's not the boat we took to the island. That's just a very cool round bamboo boat.

None of these are the boat we took to the island either - these are some of the fishing boats moored near the departure point for Monkey Island.

Even when we saw the dilapidated pier on Monkey Island, we weren’t really worried. Missing a few boards? Who cares, that’s what makes this a fun adventure!

No dock? No problem! (And yes, the boat in the background is the boat we took the island.)

The entrance to Monkey Island

As soon as we set foot on the island we were lead to a makeshift circus ring, and that’s where things got bad. The show involved a bunch of monkeys and dogs trained to do “amusing” things like count to five and roll a barrel around the ring. This wouldn’t have been that bad, except that the only unleashed monkey in the show kept trying to make a run for it. The first couple times that he ran off they’d re-capture him, swat him once on the belly, and then continue the show. It wasn’t fun to watch, and honestly I don’t know why we didn’t leave the ring right then. When the monkey ran off for the third time, upon recapturing him they took him straight backstage. We didn’t see anything, but we heard loud repeated THWACKS, followed by equally loud, pained squawks from the monkey. It was really disturbing. At this point, we got up and left the ring. “Top class” indeed.

Monkey Island is a truly bizarre place. Other than the trainers and a few caretakers, it’s uninhabited except for thousands of monkeys. I hesitate to call them wild monkeys because they are totally accustomed to people and clearly expect you to feed them. That said, they are free to roam wherever they choose – no fences or restrictions (except for the ones in the show, of course). Tom fed a couple of the "wild" monkeys right from his hand, which was fun to watch, although looking back I wish we’d just boycotted the whole place.

Who's the monkey?

Monkeys everywhere

Mom and babe

To be honest, the island was a bit creepy. It’s hard to explain. Part of it is that the monkeys follow you everywhere. They're probably only hoping for some handouts, but it was eerie to turn around and find a dozen monkeys trailing you closely. Not all of them are cute and cuddly either – many of them were pretty aggressive and would grab at any loose items including hats, cameras, bags, and fingers. It was almost as if the whole island was on the verge of a Monkey Mutiny. And you really couldn’t blame them. After watching how the trained monkeys were treated, you sort of wished that they would all revolt. Just not while you were there.

- Jessi

Monday, January 23

Ahoy! A Hoi An!

First of all, my deepest apologies for the title of this entry. Tom insisted on it. Anyway! After our train trip down the coast to Danang, we caught a taxi from Danang to Hoi An:

The ride to Hoi An was hilarious - our taxi driver was absolutely wacko, in a good way. He started every single sentence with "Excuse me..." and often threw in the phrase "Same same, but different" which we would soon learn is a very common phrase in SE Asia. Who knows why.

When we arrived in Hoi An, despite the pouring rain we were totally charmed by the riverside town. Old Town Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is full of historic pagodas, covered bridges, art stores, and tailor shops. Dozens of tailor shops. Hoi An is known for being the place to get custom-tailored clothes. Apparently you can get a custom-made wool coat for less than $30! I say apparently because Tom and I did not get any clothes made. We really didn't need anything, and we especially didn't want to haul extra clothes around with us for another 3.5 weeks. (Did you hear that Dad? I didn't buy any clothes because I didn't need them!)

Charming Hoi An

Hoi An also has a great market, and since it was raining hard and the market is covered (for the most part), that's where we headed.

Hoi An's Old Town Market

These are surgical masks that everyone wears while riding their scooters in traffic - the masks provide protection against air pollution. We'll never forget the guy who pulled down his mask and promptly stuck a cigarette in his mouth.

Many of the market vendors in Hoi An were older women who crouched on platforms next to their goods.

Fresh fruit

Fresh fish

It wasn't until we were in the market that we realized how much the heavy rains had affected the town. The river had overflowed it's banks and flooded the market. Although we weren't that eager to go sludging through the murky brown water, it didn't seem to stop many other people.

There's a road under there somewhere.

The blurry boat (it's tough to take photos in the rain!) was actually an impromptu taxi, shuttling people from dry land to a bar that had been isolated due to the flooding.

We ended our day in Hoi An with a visit to a restaurant where we tried a couple of the local delicacies: Cao Lau, which is a pork, noodle, and bean sprout dish that can only be found in Hoi An because it requires water from a particular Hoi An well, as well as White Rose, which is a plate full of shrimp/pork purses arranged in the shape of a rose. Yum!

- Jessi

Sunday, January 22

We interrupt this program...

...with a post about the present. You will be returned to our vacation pictures shortly. Thank you!

Jessi and I talk a lot about volunteering. We talked about trying to do some service over in Southeast Asia, but we just didn't have time. So when we returned, Jessi stopped talking about volunteering and signed us up for a project this past weekend. We signed up with a group called Seattle Works to work with an organization called Northwest Harvest.

Northwest Harvest is an amazing organization that collects, organizes and distributes about 18 million lbs. of food to roughly 300 foodbanks in the Northwest every year. This is equivalent to assisting a half a million people... and they don't charge fees of any kind. They have only 10 paid employees, so they rely on voluteers to help get a lot of work done. That's where we came in!

We showed up at their warehouse at about 9 AM to start working. First thing we did was get trained. We had to sort donations into 5 categories: Canned goods, dry goods, baby food, glass and plastics, and non-food items. One of the full time employees, Bill, was our instructor. It turns out there are lots of rules to sorting food. Mostly we had to check expiration dates and the condition of the packaging.

Bill teaching us how to properly sort food.

I said there are lots of rules to sorting food, and that's because there are lots of potential problems: Food without labels, expired food, damaged food and leaking food (yuk) all of which could be hazardous to the people you are trying to help. Turns out a can of tomatoes dented the wrong way can kill someone (something about the toxins in rotten tomatoes) - talk about a backfire!

Our class listening intently to Bill. That's me on the right. I'm standing there not wanting to kill anyone.

While sorting through the food, Jessi and I started to realize two things: 1.) There are a lot of generous people out there donating items. We sorted through a ton of food! (Actually 6 tons to be exact.) And 2.) There are also some inconsiderate people out there donating items. I mean, you wouldn't believe some of the food we found. People will just clean out their pantries and donate it to a food bank. They go home thinking "I have done good today," and pat themselves on the back. But what they don't realize (and we didn't either until we volunteered) is that places like Northwest Harvest spend many, many man-hours sorting through donations, and when Northwest Harvest has to throw food away, they have to pay for it. So donating expired green beans not only doesn't help anyone, but it actually hurts the organization who is trying to help. If you are reading this, please donate to a local food bank, they do a lot of good. But only donate recently purchased items and/or items that other people will want to use!

Here, look at some of the things people donated.

A bag of Halloween candy that some trick or treater started picking through. There are actually empty wrappers in the bag as evidence.

While there's no expiration date on this one, we suspect that's because it was made before they were required. The packaging was straight out of the sixties.

Seriously. Are you kidding? That's the top of a jar. We didn't write it there, it was donated that way.

This is a bag of Christmas chocolates that had been opened with scissors, sampled, and then donated.

They have to pay to throw all that stuff away.

Now, don't get me wrong. I don't mean to be negative. Not everything was bad. In fact, despite the few bad apples (we didn't sort through any apples really) there were a lot of great donations.

Now that's more like it!

Along with all the great donations, the facility was so impressive. There were groups of volunteers scurrying around, forklifts running about, pallettes of boxed food stacked neatly and truckloads and truckloads of food awaiting delivery. You definitely got a good sense of just how many people are affected by Northwest Harvest's efforts.

Look at all that food!

Stacks and stacks of packed boxes of food.

Here we are sorting all the food.

Trucks lined up ready to deliver food.

Now that's getting into your work!

Stacking up the full ones.

We had such a great time that we think we'll be doing this every month. (Don't worry we won't make you look at a hundred pictures every time we volunteer.) But if you wanna do something to help too, get out and voluteer with Seattle Works, Northwest Harvest, or at least donate some (good) food to a food bank.


Sunday, January 15

Midnight Train to... Danang?

Upon arriving back in Hanoi from Halong Bay, we headed straight for the train station. We had purchased two tickets for the night train from Hanoi to Danang. Once in Danang, we would make our way to Hoi An, a quaint and charming little town and another World Heritage site. But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, the train ride. Actually, first the map to remind you where Hanoi is (northern Vietnam), and show you where Danang and Hoi An are (central Vietnam):

Now, the train ride:
Traveling by train actually turned out to be one of the highlights of our time in Vietnam. Vietnam is a tough country to travel in. Before I get into this, I want to be careful to explain that we entered Vietnam with an open mind and no preconceived notions. But once there we were disappointed to find that it was difficult to trust people. More often than not, if a local was being nice to us they wanted us to buy something (or simply give them our money). It's very easy to feel like a walking dollar sign in Vietnam. We also found that many of the guides, vendors, and taxi drivers weren't particularly honest, and that we had to be extra alert and assertive.

But it was different on the trains. For starters, the trains were free of touts, which was so nice. Saying "NO, thank you!" 30 times an hour can get exhausting. We also found that the Vietnamese we met on the trains were incredibly nice, helpful, and generous. For example, on our trip to Danang we met a group of young Vietnamese lecturers traveling on business. They admired the scenery with us and taught us how to say "It's beautiful" (about the scenery) in Vietnamese. We would have taught them phrases in English but there wasn't much to teach them - their English was excellent. They had a bag of fruit with them and offered us a little yellow fruit that tasted like a sweet lemon, and another fruit that looked like a crabapple but tasted like a bland pear. They were friendly and fun and made the last couple hours of the train ride fly by. To top it all off, when we arrived in Danang they helped us figure out the fastest and cheapest way to get to Hoi An.

The caption of this picture should be "It's beautiful" in Vietnamese, but I forgot how to say it. Stupid American.

View of the train, from the train.

The seas were much bigger than we expected, and certain parts of the coastline (like this) reminded me of Big Sur.

The lecturers weren't the only great people we met on the trains. On another trip further down the coast, we walked into our cabin to find we shared it with 2 Vietnamese businessmen relaxing over a beer. We had barely set our bags on our bunks before they offered us a beer too! It turned out their English was as good as our Vietnamese, so Tom busted out the handy "Southeast Asia phrasebook" and we spent almost an hour laughing and stumbling through conversational basics.

Along with good company, the trains offered surprisingly comfortable berths. We traveled by soft-sleeper, which is the priciest option but still downright affordable at about $30 for a 770 km train ride, especially considering that was our lodging for the night!

We made our beds...

And lay in them.

The one downfall to the trains: the food. Ugh. It was disgusting. Every meal came with a pile of white rice, and that was really the only edible part. The other stuff smelled like feet, or looked like feet, or tasted like feet. Or all three. We quickly learned that if you're going to be on the train (or any form of public transport) for more than 4 hours, you've gotta bring snacks. Our snack of choice was mini loaves of bread that you could buy from street vendors for about 1000 dong (Vietnamese currency), or approximately 7 cents/loaf.

Tom attempting to eat the train food.

Mmmm, bread and beer... backpackers' staples!