Archives for the month of: December, 2011

It can be funny to see elements of Asian culture intersect with parts of North American culture in places I least expect it.  We were on the second night of our Halong Bay tour, and headed to the bar after dinner that our tour guide Minh recommended. We met him there and were chatting with him about his favorite music- he said the Backstreet Boys. (Say what?) Lucky for them, I had the best of album on my iPod (er, perhaps I shouldn’t admit that online…) Next thing we know, Quit Playing Games with my Heart was pumping and the bar is full of frisky old Vietnamese men singing along and buying us beers. Huh. We invented some defensive dance moves to repel our creepy BSB-loving Vietnamese ‘friends’ and had all in all a great night. (Bar tab for 6 of us after a night of drinking- less than $10. Seriously.)

One of the biggest draws to Vietnam is Halong Bay, a collection of over 3000 limestone islands jutting out from the sea just three hours away from Hanoi.  We met up with my cousin Janelle and her fiancé Jesse for the trip- it was great to spend some quality time with the both of them, especially since I’ll be missing their wedding next summer. They were great travel companions – Jesse will be a great addition to the family! With a lovely Welsh couple, we kayaked, hiked a precarious trail and a radio tower that adhered to no safety standards at all, explored caves, played cards, ate way too much, and gawked at the limestone karst landscape.

We didn’t spend too much time in Hanoi- we enjoyed some local jazz at a smoky club (I really won’t miss Vietnamese cigarettes) and ventured out on a local bus (always with Vietnamese pop music) to the Museum of Ethnology. The museum featured local dress & fabric exhibits which I loved, and was surrounded by different types of houses from different cultural groups shipped in from around SE Asia that you could explore. Very cool. To be honest, I wasn’t as impressed with Vietnamese food as I thought I’d be, but we had some unbelievable rice noodles in a cold vinegar sauce with freshly sauteed beef, crispy garlic & shallots, cilantro, and basil from a street vendor sitting in child sized seats watching traffic going by. Delicious- and about a buck each. The other thing we enjoyed were warm chiffon-like coffee flavoured buns with melted chocolate in the middle we would find for sale on the street later on at night. Yum!

Up next: Bangkok, Koh Tao, and Christmas!

-Claudia

 

 

Misty rain hung over Ninh Binh for the entirety of our visit. Instead of dampening our experience, we found we felt at home and loved what it added to the atmosphere of the steep limestone cliffs and caves of Trang An, just outside of Ninh Binh.  To experience this area, we were rowed on a boat through the waterways and caves, the only noise being the paddles being pushed through the water, birds chirping, and me flubbing along in French to try to communicate with the lovely French couple we shared a car over with.  We were treated to a beautiful impromptu bamboo flute concert which harmonized with the peace and quiet of nature.  We captured all of this on video just for you – check it out below.

I gave the flute a shot as well, and despite finding it very different to the concert instrument, I gave a rousing rendition of Mary had a little lamb. 20111207-194446.jpg20111207-194438.jpg

Not so pleasant a noise was the thud of my head against a stalactite whilst touring a cave on our boat, which kept Claudia laughing for a good two minutes after a fleeting second of concern. Thanks, Claudia.  It doesnt appear any serious damage was done (yet).

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-from Camille

Hoi An and backpacks do not get along, especially when it is raining (as it did all three days we were there).  The city is quaint and beautifully preserved – pretty much all there is to do is get custom designed and tailored clothes for great prices, and eat.  I think you know where this is going.

To be fair, I did need to replace a few items I had been regularly borrowing from Claudia in the two years we lived together and she did need a power interview suit to find her dream job (or a job) for the London Olympics.

After touring through the multiple tailors lining every street, we settled on a few (ok, 5).  One in particular proved especially dangerous since we loved everything so much that we kept ordering more.  When I saw Claudia’s blazer, I just had to have one, and vice versa when Claudia checked out my new trousers.

Our conversations with the tailors all pretty much went the same way. “Sisters? Twins?!  Who older? You so slow! (to Claudia who was 45 minutes behind me, who at this point interjects that she is slightly taller). You have boyfriend? No? (again to Claudia).  No worry, hair and makeup and you will find one in no time. (Claudia is now rolling her eyes in the background).  You have brother or sister?  Are they married?”  Without fail, the same questions and same response.  They remembered too – when we were leaving, they would yell “no worry, boyfriend soon! You buy more!”

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You may have noticed on our tracking page we are attempting to count how often people ask if we are twins.  Vietnam is the highest so far by a large number. Most can’t say twin in English, so they just point at us and look at our faces back and forth, or say “same same!”.  We nod and smile, and then they chatter excitedly to their friends.

Hoi An has an interesting history as a former port and therefore has both Japanese and Chinese influence on both architecture and food.  Local specialties include “cau lau”, a wheat udon-like noodle soup, white rose (shrimp in rice paper) along with other Vietnamese mainstays like spring rolls and fish in banana leaf.  Another food item you’ll find all over from Hoi An is “com ga” (chicken and rice), which often times is the only dish a restaurant serves.  Interesting concept.

We are very lucky we packed light – our bags are definitely busting at the seams.  We are meeting a friend in Bangkok who is heading home to Vancouver and has graciously offered up some space in his bag.  The backpack is grateful.

…you decide on a whim to bicycle to the next city 260 kilometers away instead of taking a bus.

We were in the beautiful central highlands city of Dalat, a former French hill town now known as the honeymoon spot for Vietnamese couples, and we were looking to head back down to the coast of Vietnam.  Given the number of bus hours we have logged so far (check out our tracking page for the latest number), biking just seemed like much more fun!  We were rewarded with soaring mountain roads overlooking rich, fluffy forests and manicured rice fields. We passed by coffee plantations, local villages with countless kids leaping and screaming “hello” from their stoops, and too many cow herds to count. On the ride, we were also able to see local industry first hand, ranging from growing roses, harvesting coffee, raising grasshoppers, making rice wine, weaving silk, and firing bricks – our very own live edition of “How Its Made”!  This broke up the 6 hours or so of biking on the two-day trip, as did short rides in our support vehicle to make up the extra distance.  The ride was not easy, but it was well worth it for the spectacular scenery and the fabulous descent we were rewarded with at the end. Our bike ride ended in Nha Trang, where we promptly booked onward travel to Hoi An,Vietnam. You’ll hear more on that in our next post. Hopefully we’ll get our video up of the ride shortly so you can experience it, too.

So how exactly did we get to Dalat?  We left off in Kampot, where we alluded to our less than smooth journey to Vietnam. As a general rule, multiple any given bus time by 1.5 and you have your actual arrival time. Double is a little extreme. Our 9 hour ride from Kampot to Saigon somehow became 19; luckily we were in great company and made the most of the situation with a lovely 65-year old couple backpacking for four months and our good friend Daniel.

What was most interesting to me in Saigon was the history of the Vietnam War (or, as they call it, the American War). The pictures and stories were not easy to digest.  I found that some exhibits  were filled with emotion, like the photos of the effects of Agent Orange, while others demonstrated an apparent lack of emotion, for example, when our guide described the variety of vicious bamboo traps used against the American soldiers demonstrated at the Cu Chi Tunnels.

After dinner at Pho 2000 and a night of dancing at an expat bar in Saigon, we headed to Mui Ne, where we spent two days checking out the Egypt of Southeast Asia (the Mui Ne sand dunes) and learning how to windsurf. A short bus ride later, and we had arrived in Dalat.

In Dalat, it was wonderful to wake up to cool mountain air. Cafes are filled with men “chewing the fat” over a cup of local coffee or tea, and streets steeply wind in circles like San Francisco. Since the city is catered towards Vietnamese tourists and not Western tourists, we had a welcome break from touts selling sunglasses and could more easily participate in local life. We enjoyed some of the best Vietnamese food so far in our visit – a delicious pork bahn bao, pho, rice pancakes, and deep-fried sesame buns. We spent our time in Dalat with a local guide who took us up to the top of Liang Bian Mountain, named after a Vietnamese Romeo and Juliet story.  He proudly showed off his village from the top where we enjoyed 360 degree views. The tough climb was well worth it.

Vietnam (well, all of Southeast Asia) has somewhat of a reputation for trying to take money at every opportunity, so it’s become a habit to say no to everything. For example, in one night drinking a beer over the space of 2 hours, we had about 20 vendors try to peddle their fake Ray Bans or cigarettes on us. It was always no, until someone offered to fix and polish my broken and dirty Birkenstocks while I sat in a Saigon park for one dollar – I definitely can’t complain about that (until he tried to charge me double after he was done. Don’t think so, buddy!)

-from Camille

We’ve finally found a good computer and solid internet connection to add some photos.  Check out the Cambodia slideshow below, and also our Angkor Wat post for pictures!

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