Thursday, June 23, 2011

Day 52!

My suit!

Halong Bay

Fishing Boats we had breakfast on

View from room in Sapa

Bags loaded on bus to Halong Bay

Alright team! I've let another 2 weeks slip by since my last email. I blame shotty internet and an unwillingness to write e-mails on my phone.

I left off the last e-mail having just finished up my motorbike trip in Hoi An where I bought a lovely new suit! Photo attached.We left Hoi An and headed to Hue which is the old imperial capital of Vietnam. Hue was pretty interesting. We opted not to do a hotel tour because at 16$ they seemed expensive however his was probably a mistake because between paying for transport and site entrence fee's we probably payed almost that much and didn't get to see as much. In Hue it was really hot in the morning and we went to see the Citadel at the center of the city. It was nice, I thought it was funny that there was a modern tennis court in the center. Apparently one of the emperors enjoyed sports and played tennis. I would have preffered if they had left the old tennis court rather than this new 2008 version. Unfortunately a lot of the citadel was ruined from Bombing during the war (not too sure which one...). We left there and went to see a temple where the emporors are burried. Looking through the book it didn't tell us where they were so we chose the most appealing one based on description. Well turns out it was also the furthest (At 15km temples ranged from 2-15km).

Having completed all that we wanted in Hue we decided to leave a day early in order to get to Hanoi earlier so that we could get a good trip to Halong Bay before Colin left. We opted not to do the Demilitarized zone since we saw bomb craters, beat up bridges and tanks agent orange debris while on the bike trip. If there was anything else we would see in the DMZ I don't want to know.

Unfortunately being a national holiday there were no busses or trains to Hanoi so we ended up flying. It was only about 20$ more expensive than the train but much more comfortable. In Hanoi we went to the Hao Lo prison which was a french colonial prison used against vietnamese revolutionaries. Having just read the book Papillion which is about a frenchmen imprisoned at a colonial prison in south america it was interested to see the similarities between the two. Again it was another example of how the vietnamese have been abused by foreigners. We followed that up by going to see the Ho Chi Minh Museum which was less inspiring. Unfortunately we didn't know that you had to go see the man himself Uncle Ho (Ho Chi Minh) early in the morning because its closed the rest of the day. The next morning we departed for Halong Bay.

We weren't really sure what we were getting into. Again the tours were expensive. 100$ for two nights so we opted to do it on our own. We made sure to book a bus that would get us the whole way there without knowing that it was a tour bus. So we managed to do the touristy route through the bay at a fraction of the price. SCORE! Halong Bay was beautiful. We saw some pretty impressive caves and then were dropped off on Cat Ba island. I've attached a photo of the islands in the bay. Out of this world! The once on Cat Ba one of Colin and I's funniest experiences happened. We went out drinking (Halong Bay also had 5000 Dong beers, or 25 cents) so we were a few drinks in and the table next to us had about 10-12 Vietnamese getting loaded.They kept coming over to Cheers us and eventually even refilled our glasses. At this point Colin and I were 5 beers in each and decided to join their table for a bit. Well they payed for all the beer but over the next hour was fighting not to throw up. I estimate we had in the range of 15-20 beers (they are smaller glasses, probably 250-300ml rather than the usual 355 to a can). Somewhere during that hour we were convinced to go fishing with them the next morning. Our understanding was that they were visiting the island on a fishing trip. So at 6:55 AM the next morning one of the guys Mr Nam knocks on our hotel room door. I wasn't feeling too great to say the least. I tried to explain to him that I was too hung over to go fishing so I kept saying "No Fishing" which he would then reply with a smile "No fishing!" Colin then infered that we were being invited to breakfast instead of fishing so we followed him and he leads us to the dock. I wisper to Colin that we are in fact headed towards a boat, so I repeat to Mr Nam for the 50th time "No Fishing" and he agreed no fishing but we get on the boat nonetheless. This is where the miscomunication took place. They were not on a fishing trip, they were fisherman inviting us to their boat for breakfast. So we went into the bay and had rice and fish with them. It was pretty good despite the hangover. We stayed on the boat for 3 hours while it poured rain outside so all in all it was a great way to kill the morning. The funny part was they were be chatting away in Vietnamese and then all of a sudden yell out NO FISHING! and all start laughing at me. I've included a photo of the boats. They did not live up to your typical reputation of fisherman. They were all very nice and polite and not crude at all (with the exception of an old man who showed Colin Vietnamese porn on his cell phone. We don't really know why he did that).

The sun came out and we spent the afternoon nursing out hangover on the beach. There was distinctly a white person section which was kinda funny.

The next day we did a kayak trip which was interesting. They took us out a km and just left us there. We had no idea where to go or when to get there. I yelled to them as they were leaving and they pointed at their watch and put up 2 fingers and pointed at an island. I assumed that meant we had to get to the island in 2 hours... hopefully. We left Cat Ba island for Hanoi that afternoon and the next morning finally managed to see Ho Chi Minh! The line was HUGE! well over a km. I'm guessing this was because of the holiday. We were fairly far back in the line which got cut off behind us probably 200 people back. Well funny thing happened. In Vietnam to move forward in a line you need to pass people. So before we knew it we were at the back of the line with 50 other white people. The spectacle of seeing Ho Chi Minh was more entertaining than the actual site itself since you only walk through the Mausoleum for 30 seconds while you see him through glass from 20 feel away.

Colin left that afternoon and I for the first time was on my own. I had a train booked to Sapa and having had success with Colin without the Tour decided to do Sapa on my own as well. You take a train overnight and are picked up and driven the hour to Sapa. The drive was spectacular. You see photos of the rice fields climbing up the mountain but you really can't appreciate it without seeing them. They are huge! The first day I rented a motorbike from the hotel (I've attached the view from my hotel room, it was steep at 6$) and spent 3 hours just cruising down the roads and taking photos. If anyone is going, I would suggest the south road. Northwest didn't have much to see and East is the way you come. I didn't know this road exhisted until later in my trip which was too bad but it was the most spectacular. All of the hotels offered the same tour for 15$ and I met a local who was willing to give me the same tour 1 on 1 for 7. I was pleased with my barganing skills so the next morning I embarked on a day treck. I immediately felt guilty for being so cheap. She spent 3$ on food for lunch and was only making 4 dollars on the whole day.

The trek was great. we passed through the mountains and she explaned to me the farming as well as how they make clothes out of hemp brining me to a huge marajuana field and she strips off the leaves, hands them to me and shows me who they make string out of the stalk of the plant. We got to her house were she made me a big lunch. More than I could eat. While she was cooking since there wasn't much for me to do I got a little bored. She noticed this and suggested I take a nap. I wasn't really tired but figured this was less awkward than sitting in the room watching her cook. I lay down and sure enough 5 minutes later was out cold. I woke up an hour later because her kids were throwing sticks and stuff at my beard. My beard is a hit in Vietnam. I can only imagine it will get better since its only halfway now. That being said. My beard hasn't been a hit all over. It did make a small child cry when I waved at her, but this did make her dad laugh a lot.

After lunch my guide (Ma) brought me to the road and said I could walk or motorbike. Since I hate taking rides off the lazy motorbike drivers I opted to walk. She said it was a 2.5 hour walk along the beautiful valley and relatively flat. Off I went. every 5 minutes a guy would drive by saying. Hello... Motobike? and I just kept walking. Turns out it wasn't flat. The signs on the way said 10% uphill. For 9km. it was like walking up to the top of Seymore. I was tired. Got back to the hotel in desparate need of a shower and food. The last day in sapa I just relaxed and saw the town and took the train back to Hanoi overnight.

Which brings me to yesterday. Chris Newlove (friend from montreal) is also in Hanoi coming from Laos and we went out last night. Much to my surprise there were also 4 other McGill friends all in different stages of leaving Hanoi, some for Canada, others heading South. Unfortnuately none headed to Laos. We went out, had another big night of drinking and that brings me to today. Sitting in the rain waiting for my flight to Laos!

Anyways. Congrats if you made it this long. Sorry for the length.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Day 40!

I just realized I hadn't posted this one. Sorry team. I'll try and get a post of my last 2 weeks up tonight as I have good internet again in Hanoi.

I arrived in Vietnam on the 2nd of June and met up with Colin at the airport. By noon we were in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) and found a hotel to stay in. The rest of the day was spent walking. A lot, we went to the Ho Chi Minh city museum which was a little disapointing however the was War Remnants Museum was really interesting. They had a whole section about the bombings, agent orange and simpy the historical timeline of the war. Seeing as how I did very little research prior to coming, most of my knowledge of Vietnam came from watching Forrest Gump. It was a little embarrasing the amount I didn't know about. We followed this up by trying to find a theatre playing the new X men only to discover that it isn't showing yet in Vietnam (it was everywhere in KL and Singapore). This was probably a good thing as we settled in early and were up by 6:30 to head to see the Cu Chi tunnels.

The Cu Chi tunnels were again really interesting. There were over 200km of tunnels dug out using spoons and bomb shrapnel in order to prevent the advancement of the americans. This was probably one of my favorite days so far. Here we learned that Colin is in fact bigger than your average vietnamese since he didn't fit in one of the hideout holes. His shoulders wouldn't fit.

Back to Saigon in the evening we prepared once more to travel the next day to the Mekong River delta. One frustating thing about Vietnam is that even on highways you can't average more than 45-50km/k. So getting out to the Delta took all day. I will be brief with my description of the Mekong delta. I didn't really enjoy it. It was somewhat of a let down. Sure the floating market was pretty neat but going to fruit plantations and bee hives wasn't exactly the highlight of my trip. I tried to think of a different way to tour the area but since it covers such a large geographical area I couldn't really see a better way without having an extensive knowledge of it first.

We got back to Saigon at around 4:30 and were catching a night bus at midnight to Dalat so had some time to kill. We found a restaurant that showed movies and had cheap enough beer so we hung out there for a bit. At 10 we had to be at the tourist agent to be brought to the bus station. Getting to the bus station at 10:30 we found out that there wasn't a midnight bus and instead had to take the 10:30PM bus. Not a big probelm except I had just had food, water and beer and was somewhat counting on that 90 minutes to let my stomach settle.

The bus ride was an adventure. We thought we were being smar by taking a sleeper bus overnight. It cost an extra 3 dollars each but to be able to sleep through the night. Turns out the bus is more of a roller coaster. Constantly slamming on its breaks and swerving left and right. Being in the sleeper you really couldn't sleep. The fact that I didn't really fit in the bed didn't help either. Colin really didn't fit. Once again, turns out he is larger than a Vietnamese. The ride was capped off by the lovely sounds of a woman in the back vomitting the entire ride. All 7 hours of it.

Dalat was a really nice town. Its small and in the mountains so wasn't as hot as the rest of Vietnam. Unfortunately it rained all day but we managed to make the most of it walking around. A really pretty place. One thing that is funny about Dalat is there are motorcycle tours called Easy Riders. And the second you walk into the city they find out. We were originally going to head to the beaches following Dalat, but then got convinced to do a 5 day motorbike trip up to Hoi An and experience "the real Vietnam" with a local. The scenery was beautiful and the ride a lot of fun. Passing through the central highlands we saw so many nice rice fields, mountains and rivers and jungles. One thing that is incredible here is that there is no wasted land. Farms climb up steep mountains and down the other side. Terrain that would never be farmed in Canada.

Driving the bike really wasn't very hard and wasn't as dangerous as you would think. The only pain was the busses. In Vietnam there are different traffic speed limits for different sized cars. Tractors can go 30, bikes 40-50 (depending on the road), cars 60 and busses 70. The rest is that busses are constantly making the sketchiest passes. Blind corner going downhill, no problem, Doesn't even tough the brakes. Fortunately everyone in Vietnam honks roughly every 8 seconds so you always knew when a bus was coming to move over onto the shoulder.

We finally arrived in Hoi An in one piece with a lot of dirty clothes. This required the necessity for laundry and also a new wardrobe. Hoi An is where you can get really cheap clothing made. I got a suit and jacket made, Colin two pairs of pants. I just picked them up today and am really pleased with the outcome.

We spent the day waiting for the suit at the beach getting roasted. Vietnam is by far the hottest of the countries I've been in so far. I guess thats why I get heading towards the 20* of latitude in the middle of June.

Thats it for now. We are heading to Hue in 20 minutes and will check out the Citadel, some Tombs and hopefully the Demilitarized zone.

Hope everyone is doing well. Let me know what you are up to. All I've gotten as replies is "keep up the updates"

Miss you all

Monday, June 6, 2011

Day 33

Wow so much to say, so little time to say it. So I will just do a super fast description of the past two weeks with the highlight of each few days.

Last time I left you I was in Kuta Lombok on the 17th fending off spiders for Steph. We left Kuta and headed to Sengigi for a day. It was supposed to be the beach of all beaches, claimed you could search for years and never come across a beach like this. To say the least Steph and I were unimpressed. We had just left Lombok where we had found paradise.

We only stayed in Sengigi a day going to the market at night and the next morning took off for Ubud in order to be closer to the airport in Denpasar (Bali). After a 4.5 hour ferry ride which took us 10.5 hours in total we made it to Ubud (the cultural center of Bali). We had quick dinner (I found a plethora of ants in mine, delightful) and then we walked around and went to bed after a LONG day.

The next day was in Ubud, a full day. We went north and saw some bhuddist temples and then came back and discovered a gem of South East Asia, ABC Special. Its a drink with shaved ice and sugar more or less with fruits. Delicious! After lunch we went to the monkey sanctuary. Should have been a blast, and at first the novelty of the monkeys was great. Until we realized monkeys are very nice. Steph was handing a monkey a banana and it ate it, then proceeded to search her bag. When she tried to stop it, it grabbed her arm and bit her. I once again came to the rescue, throwing a banana a few feet away so the monkey would leave her. Unfortunately I hadn't thought of this sooner. From that point we were a little tentative around monkeys and shortened our stay at the sanctuary. We found a cool market as well and finally tried Durian fruit (they stink and aren't very tasty).

The 20th was fairly boring. Just early flight to Kuala Lumpur and then I had Visa stuff for Vietnam to take care off. Steph wandered around the Indian quarter and we regrouped with Erich and Corinne at the hostel. Getting my visa was a fiasco, I forgot my passport photo in my larger bag so I had to rush off and get new ones taken at a mall, A cab driver took me and drove me around for the hour getting me back to the consulate with 10 minutes to spare and get my Visa.

Our only day in Kuala Lumpur was spent going to the Batu Caves. These are a really interesting rock formation forming caves in the middle of plains. At the caves are a few very rare species which only exist in those specific caves (such as a type of spider of which they estimated there are only a dozen exist). The night before I had been feeling really lightheaded and sick. And following the caves I started feeling the same way. I went back to the hostel while the group headed to China town and I slept from 5:30PM until 9AM the next morning and felt significantly better. The one highlight of the day however was Erich having his snacks stolen by a monkey. He was going to give them to the monkey however didn't have the chance.
The following day once again was a transfer day, we traveled to Kota Kinabalu in Borneo. Not much to report. We spent the next day on the island of Sapi, I don't really recommend it. It was nice, however after the beaches of Indonesia it really didn't compare. However following the island we were dropped of in KK again and found the most incredible food market which we used to stock up on snacks for the climb of Mt Kinabalu (the tallest mountain in South East Asia at 4097M) which we were to start the next day.

The climb was entertaining and not nearly as hard as Mt Rinjani however it also didn't offer as many views. It was more like climbing the Grouse Grind for those who have done it. But with the four of us (Vince, Steph, Erich, Corinne), we made a fun climb out of it continuously passing groups who did not appear to be having as much fun as us. We arrived at camp around 3. Ate food and settled in to sleep around 6. Surprisingly no one had trouble dozing off after the long day. I had a lot of trouble staying asleep. Being my first time sleeping at 3300M the air was very thin and I kept waking up short of breath. Steph commented that I seemed to be having more trouble than most with this, I wondered if it was because of the sports I've done. I've heard triathletes don't make the best mountain climbers due to the oxygen dept. We woke up at 2:30 AM and attacked the summit.

Steph and I were smarter this time, taking our time so as to not get there too early and freeze at the top. It was not as windy as Rinjani however the temperature I would say was colder. We got to the top after managing the rope climbs and were rewarded by some truly spectacular views of the mountain. Unfortunately it wasn't the best sunrise, but the mountain-scape made up for it. The weather was unpredictable, we had a view one moment and then 30 seconds later everything was whiteout with clouds.

We descended the mountain telling jokes and mainly making fun of Corinnes dance moves then caught the bus to Sandikan on which they pumped some sweet Maria Carey and Celine!

Now for the highlight of my trip so far. On the 26th around Sandikan we went to two more monkey sanctuaries. The first, an Orangutan sanctuary. They are pretty cool beast, however not nearly as impressive as the proboscis monkeys. Borneo is the only place these monkeys exist. If ever you are in the area it is a must see. Skip the Orangutans if necessary. They were very timid monkeys and you could get right up close to them and they didn't bite (unlike those foul grey tailed monkeys). We followed up that fantastic day with some Karaoke and a few too many drinks.

We started the next a little late and prepared to head to Semporna the stepping stone to Mabul island for 2 days of scuba! The scuba diving was a lot of fun and I tried a night dive which was a new experience. You can't really describe scuba diving in an e-mail and give it justice. Just know that Mabul/Sipadan are supposed to be world class dive sites. We didn't manage to make it to Sipadan however Mabul made up for it with the assortment of fish and turtles. We also dove in Kapalai which is a resort build on stilts above the coral. Very cool.

Unfortunately on the 30th our trip with Erich and Corinne had to come to an end. Steph and I headed back to the mainland and Kuala Lumpur so I could pick up my visa. The next day we spent the morning doing some Christmas shopping and checking out the central market before heading to Singapore where Steph flew out the next day. On a sad note, we lost Steph's camera. And despite my best efforts have been unable to recover it. Hopefully it will turn out but maybe those photo memories are lost. Fortunately most of the photos we took have been on my camera.

Our last day together was jam packed. After sleeping in a little too late we had the arduous task of working out the expenses for past month then head to botanical gardens. We then walked along Orchard road and headed to china town. It was not the best china town but was once again unique to the others we had seen. We spent the end of our day repeating some of the things we did on our first day. Checking out Bugis market and a must, going to little India for some Indian and delicious mango lassies. We talked about those Mango lassies the entire trip and were very satisfied when they lived up to the hype we had given them. So good in fact that we bought seconds. We headed back to the room, packed and headed to the airport. Steph flew out at 1am for Calgary and I at 7AM for Saigon. We split at the airport, I was sad to see her leave after an unforgettable month.

I slept in the terminal and the next morning met up with Colin in VIETNAM!

I'll leave it there. This concluded the first quarter of my trip. Sorry for the length. I'll try and be more consistent in the future!

I have attached two photos, one of the beach in Kuta, and the second of a grey monkey before we realized they were the enemy.