Sunday, March 31, 2013

Loving Life in Luang Prabang

Many of you have sent me messages asking "Where are you now? We have missed the updates." I am sorry about the lack of updates. I am still in Luang Prabang, Laos. I planned on being here for 5 days then decided to stay 8 days and now it will be 13 days. Yes, I love it here! When I went to the hotel reception desk to talk to them about staying longer, I was told my same room was going to cost $75/night! Wow! That was outside my budget and I decided to visit a few hotels and find something within my price range. I found a room 2 blocks away for $13/night. You are probably wondering what I am doing. I call it living life and being joyful and happy. I read a blog ( that hit a chord with me. It asked the question to readers "What do you do when there are no demands on your time?" For me, this trip has been about enjoying my life and thinking about who I am and what I hope to gain out of traveling. From previous trips, I knew I was a culture vulture with some outdoor activities mixed into the activities. I did not know how it would go traveling solo but Luang Prabang has captured my heart. I have never loved a city like this city. I started off doing the typical tourist activities and then had an encounter that changed the focus of my stay in Luang Prabang. I met the novice monk Bandit. He encouraged me to spend time speaking English with the locals. I was timid at first but in the end I enjoyed it. This is why I travel!  I love meeting the locals and sharing my life with them as I learn about their world. I have spent the last few days doing the things I love. I enjoy learning and sharing my knowledge. I have spent my time learning to speak with the locals, taking a cooking class on Lao food, volunteering with students, visiting art galleries and working on photography. I am happy and enjoy living my life. So, this post may be boring to some of you. Sorry about that but it is what it is. :)

As most of you know, I love eating good food. Obviously, a cooking class in Lao was high on the list. I wandered around town looking for a good class.  I was walking by a restaurant and saw a sign for a cooking class. A couple tables saw me looking at the sign and they asked if I was interested in the class. I responded "yes." They told me that the food was excellent and asked if I would like to try their leftovers. Really?!? Why not? The food was fantastic and I immediately signed up for a class with Tum Tum Cheng's for the following day. Mmmm...I loved what I sampled and was excited to learn more wonderful recipes.

Class started at 9 am. I laughed when Rykka walked in and sat down. She and I ran into each other everywhere in Luang Prabang. We were on the plane together, stayed at the same hotels, ate at the same restaurants and shopped the same streets. It was not a surprise that she was in the class.  We all sat down and decided which foods we wanted to cook. I chose the chicken with red chili and coconut sauce. We also chose ginger fish, steamed vegetable salad, stuffed lemongrass, Luang Prabang beef stew and pineapple-banana soup for dessert. Oh, and sticky rice off course...we were in Laos! We jumped in a tuk-tuk and headed off to the market to get the fresh ingredients.

We returned and our teacher, Linda, taught us about Lao culture and food while the chefs prepared all the vegetables for us. Of course, we were given knives and vegetables to do a little chopping but she said it would take 5 hours for us to chop everything. Since her staff could do it faster, it would allow us to learn about the Lao food culture. I was fine with it. The chopping I did was enough to make me happy. We headed to the kitchen and started cooking. My chicken with chili paste and coconut milk looked and smelled delicious. I was excited when she handed me a spoon and said I could taste it. Yummy! It was nice and spicy but not too hot.
 Each of us helped with the dishes so everything would be ready simultaneously. Then we sat down and enjoyed our delicious meal. I loved the chicken stuffed lemongrass. 

Bon appetite! Time to enjoy the meal.
We were all happy and full as we left Tum Tum Chengs. I have a recipe book full of food and can't wait to share it with you. I promise I will make you a meal when I see you next!

The remainder of my time, I have spent volunteering with English students. They are all very anxious to practice speaking English with the tourists. As an American I am a commodity!  Seems the novice monks and the students all like the American accent the best. I had previously met some wonderful young men that were novice monks. They had told me about the organization Big Brother Mouse ( where I could buy and donate books for village children and practice English with students. I became a proponent of the program on my first visit. There were students with a variety of ages and backgrounds. When you arrive, you remove your shoes and go in and sit down with students. Then you introduce yourself and they start asking you general questions about your life and family. I have spent time talking with novice monks and students of all ages. Some will have homework they need help understanding or ask you to help with their pronunciation or to explain a word. My first night, I was sitting with two novices and a high school student. After we went through the formalities and introduced ourselves, they got out a notebook. The young novice opened the notebook and searched for a word he did not understand. Then pointed at it and asked me to explain environment. I smiled and asked if he had anything easier then proceeded to explain the environment the best I could. Until I started doing this, I did not realize how many different meaning there are for the same word in English.  They asked me to use it in a sentence and then each of them used it in a sentence. We went through their words and practiced spelling and using it in a sentence. Then they asked if I had photographs from home. I started showing them pictures of friends, family, where I have lived and traveled. They enjoyed this and asked many questions. We went to a map so I could show them where I lived and the distance my families village was from my home. They showed me where their families lived. Then, one of the novice monks asked if I could teach him American slang. I smiled as he shared with me the phrases he knew. There is nothing like a Buddhist monk dressed in his robe looking at you and saying "Peace Out" as he gives the peace sign. I taught him a few more. They were so funny. I enjoyed my evening and walked home smiling. Since then, I have returned every day. The last three days I have been there from 9-11 am and 5-7 pm. I have learned as much from them as they have learned from me.

Several of the students have asked me to come to their English classes in the temples with the infamous teacher from America named Michael. Everyone in Luang Prabang seems to be taking English classes from him because he does them for free. Last night as I was sitting talking to 5 students they all got excited when a western man walked in. It was the infamous Michael! I introduced myself and he asked the student why they had not dragged me to class. They laughed and said I was coming with them tonight! So, I did. We all biked over to the temple and started a 1.5 hour class. He called me to the front of the room to introduce myself and then play a the pronunciation game. He handed a slip of paper to the first student and he was to pronounce the word and I had to write what I heard. Oh, no! We all laughed as the students said the word and I could not get it. They were saying thorough but it sounded like anything from throve, thowrogue, throw up and thorouge. It was an exercise to teach them the importance of good pronunciation. The second activity was called English Slam. I got to help demonstrate the game to the students. The assignment was to speak as long and fast as you can about my clothes. The first person to stop was the loser....I lost but the students found it funny. Then it was their turn. None of them wanted to do it so Michael took the time to explain why these activities were important. He explained that Lao people are very nice and timid and don't typically stand up for what they want or actively ask for what they want. They are very sweet and shy. He wanted to teach them that their understanding of the English language was good and to teach them to think on their feet. Reluctantly, they started the game and had fun. The best were 2 students that were told to talk about their day and one of the boys asked if he could talk about his girlfriend instead. Sure! It was hilarious listening to these two Lao students talk about girls and lost love. They went on...and on...and on for a good 15 minutes. It was so cute and they were so shy afterwards. Then we got into a deep discussion about a riddle. I was amazed at their ability to argue and understand such a deep thought provoking topic in a foreign language. At the end of the evening, I thanked everyone and Michael. He asked when I was leaving. I told him I wasn't sure and wanted to stay for the Laos New Year. He laughed and said, "You aren't going anywhere for the next 2 weeks. Stay and enjoy your time here!" I laughed...he is probably right! I am suppose to check out of my hotel tomorrow....not sure I want to leave yet. I have loved working with the students and I was not ready to leave. After a little thinking I decided I was going to stay three more days in Luang Prabang. The new plan is to stay until the 3rd. Then, I will go north to Nong Khiaw, east to Vieng Thong and Vieng Xai and then southwest to Phosavan and back to Luang Prabang. The Laos New Year celebration is the 13th-15th. All the novice monks get excited talking about the festival so, I knew I would return to Luang Prabang to enjoy the celebrations. I just made reservations at the hotel for the 12-18th.  You are probably wondering what is special about the New Year celebration in Laos? It is a water festival! That is right! Everyone gets sprayed with water guns and buckets of water. It will feel wonderful in this heat! It will make for some wonderful photos and stories too!

I would attach more photos of the area but the internet connection is very slow. I have been trying to do this for 2 days. After 2 glasses of Chile wine I decided to just give up and enjoy the evening.  Good night! 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Motorbikes, Waterfalls and Bears....Oh My!

After a couple days of culture, I was ready to explore the wilderness and have some fun. I met an American couple the previous night as we bonded over the spiciness of Lao food. Laughter turned into a conversation and we realized we had all grown up in the Midwest. We enjoyed a Beerlao and laughed over travel stories. One thing led to another and they invited me to go with them out to visit Kuang Si waterfall. When they mentioned they were renting a motorbike (scooter) and driving out, I was in! You know how I love the motorbikes!! We made plans to meet in the morning. I found a place in town and rented an automatic bike for $20 for the day. After a quick lesson in how to start, stop, lock the front wheel and store the helmet I was ready to go! I was a little nervous at first but all those years of riding a moped came back to me. I figured it would be a success as long as I made it back in one piece and got to swim at the waterfall. Driving was easy as the traffic was light and much less congested than Vietnam. We headed out of Luang Prabang 30 km to the falls. It was a beautiful ride on paved roads through Hmong villages and farms. The rolling hillside made for a relaxing drive. We arrived at the waterfalls and bear rescue center. That's right, Laos has black bears! Oh my! I had forgotten about it until we arrived. We parked the motorbikes and paid $3 for parking and entrance to the falls. We decided to hike to the waterfalls, swim and then make our way back to the bear rescue center.

The turquois water made me feel like I was in a magical jungle setting. It was so beautiful, we were all eager to touch the water. Wow! It was freezing! Hopefully, it will feel great after some hiking and as the day gets warmer. There were several levels for swimming.  We walked further along the trail to the large Kuang Si waterfall. It was spectacular. As I watched I noticed there were three levels of waterfalls here. But swimming was not allowed in the upper levels. 

We had a sandwich and sat in the sun waiting to get warm. It eventually became time to take the plunge. I walked to the side of the water, stuck my toe in and it still felt freezing cold. I knew it was a matter of just jumping in. I leaned forward and jumped. Brrrrr! I lost my breath. I kept moving, waiting to get numb. I swam to the waterfall and stood on a rock, enjoying the scenery. It was tranquil and wonderful. I noticed something tickling my foot. I asked James if he felt something and he thought it was little fish eating the dead skin on our feet. Just like the Mr. Fish pedicures! It tickled. I looked down and could see little fish. An added bonus at the falls!

We walked down to the lower level and could hear the tour bus had arrived with people. At this level there is a rope swing that is the center of attraction. You just walk out on the tree, use a stick to grab the rope, hold on and play Tarzan as you swing through the jungle.

We continued down the path to the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Center. There was no fee and the bears appeared happy. Most of the bears were rescued or confiscated from illegal poaching and trading. They are Moon Bears and look similar to the US Black Bear. They put food in different toys for the bears to keep them entertained. Most of the bears were taking naps. 

We jumped on our motorbikes and headed back to Luang Prabang. Everything was going well until we had to cross a bridge. Ann and James went first. They were almost across the bridge when they went off one of the boards and the scooter went over. They were both fine. Just a little scratched and bleeding. Everyone that came by stopped to off their help. People offered to give them a hide back to town, German tourists offered medications and others stayed to make sure they were fine. One Lao man walked down to the ditch and grabbed a handful of leaves. He chewed them and started rubbing them on Ann's leg. He handed some to James also. We don't know what it was but they said it stung! We made it back to town safely and decided to get cleaned up and meet for dinner. 

We decided to walk across the bamboo bridge over the Nam Khan River. It is a little scary. It is made entirely of bamboo and there were a few spots that seemed rickety. I grabbed the side rail and realized it was a little wobbly also. The bridge bounces as you walk. I was excited when I made it across and decided I had earned my Beerlao for the night. We ate dinner at Dyen Sabai. We started with a Lao platter for an appetizer. It was delicious. The platter included
eggplant, pork with sesame seeds, jaew bong , Luang Prabang Sausage and fried seaweed with lemongrass roasted peanuts. It is accompanied by lots of black sticky rice. 
For the main course, we ordered the Lao Fondue with chicken, buffalo and an extra side of vegetables. The fondue was fun. They bring a large bucket of hot coals and put it in a hole in the middle of the table. Then a grill is added to the top. We ordered chicken and buffalo meat which came with a large bowl of chopped vegetables, herbs, and a couple whole eggs. You start by pouring in water around the edge and add the vegetables. The meat goes on the grill at the top and the juices run down to flavor the soup around the edges. We added noodles and broke an egg into the soup. You then eat it up until you are full. DELICIOUS! I was full and happy for my walk back across the bamboo bridge. Another wonderful day in Luang Prabang. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Tak Bat (Giving of Alms) in Luang Prabang, Laos

Leaving Vietnam, my next destination was Laos. My visa was expiring and I needed to be out of Vietnam in 2 days. I asked the tourist information at my hotel about my options. He told me I could do the bus or fly. Since the travel agent had an inexpensive flight and I jumped at the idea of a 1 hour flight for $125 versus 26 hours on a bus.  I arrived in the beautiful city of Luang Prabang at 10PM. I had read about the area and my friends (Christy and Steve McCrosky) had told me to get up early and watch Tak Bat, the giving of alms to the monks. This ritual has been a part of the area’s religious heritage ever since Buddhism was introduced to Laos in the 14th century -- far longer than modern tourism has existed. I was excited! As many of you know, I am an early morning person so I had no problem with waking up at 5:30 AM. I also love anything cultural. I was so excited for a new learning opportunity. I read up on the custom and looked forward to witnessing the ceremony.  My goal in traveling is to be understanding and respectful to the local cultures. Since this is a religious ceremony and has great meaning to the people of Luang Prabang I wanted to follow their cultural and religious expectations. I found a list of rules on the web.

The Tak Bat Rules:
  • Observe the ritual in silence and contribute an offering only if it is meaningful for you and you can do so respectfully.
  • Buy sticky rice at the local market earlier that morning rather than from street vendors along the monks route.
  • If you do not wish to make an offering, please keep an appropriate distance and behave respectfully. Do not get in the way of the monks’ procession or the believers offerings.
  • Do not stand too close to the monks when taking photographs; camera flashes are very disturbing for both monks and the lay people.
  • Dress appropriate: Shoulders, chests and legs should be covered.
  • Do not make physical contact with the monks.
  • Large buses are forbidden within the Luang Prabang World Heritage Site and are extremely disturbing. Do not follow the procession on a bus – you will stand above the monks which in Laos is disrespectful.
They are quite simple and easy to follow. Right? I had also read on-line and in Lonely Planet that you should take pictures from across the street or very discretely and not to use a flash. I was educated and ready for sunrise with the monks.

(Please note all of my photos are taken from across the street. You will see, it is very easy to get a great photo without getting in the face of the monks.)

The next morning I woke with the roosters crowing. I could hear chanting from the wat across from my guesthouse. It was soft and beautiful. I went out to watch the procession. The call to Tak Bat stated with the temple drums beginning a rhythmic signal to the start of the procession. The monks filed out of the monasteries in their saffron robes and formed a line.

I smiled as I saw young boys (as young as 10 years old) intermixed with the older monks. The young novices seemed anxious to go and were looking around at all of the people. The townspeople and some tourists were waiting. The lay women kneel on mats with a rice basket in hand. The men could stand.

It was relatively quiet and the procession of monks filed past and received the sticky rice balls, bananas and money in their alms. The food the monks receive is their sustenance for the day. The townspeople gain merit which they believe will bring them happiness, a peaceful life and strength to overcome any obstacles or misfortune that they may encounter. I was moved by the piety of the givers and receivers. It is beautiful.

I had one issue with what I observed. Some of the tourists acted like this was a circus. I was disgusted by their behavior.  It isn't just the tourists but the tour companies that are running Alms Giving packages. The vans of tourist pulled up and the people walked right up to the monks and put a camera in their faces. Others were participating in the ceremony and posing as their friends took photos. I was appalled by the behavior. It was not respectful of the ceremony. Don't be the rude tourist and put your camera in the face of the monks. I started to wonder if it was like this everywhere or just at the one location near my hotel.  Imagine a large tourist bus pulling up to your place of worship and people filing in to the front and taking pictures of you during your wedding, communion or your child's baptism.  I am not trying to preach but was shocked by the rude behavior and lack of consideration to the beliefs of the monks and townspeople. I am no different than these tourists. I wanted to experience the culture. I just preferred to be respectful and stay across the street. I started asking some questions to a man at my hotel. He suggested I get up and witness the ceremony at a couple different locations.
  1. At my hotel Villa Senesouk on Sakkarine Road
  2. Corner of Sakkarine and Sisa Vangvatthana Road
  3. Kounxao Road near Ban Xien Thong
He thought I may make some interesting observations and wanted to me to report back to him. I accepted his assignment. On the second morning, I decided to follow the monks just to understand where they go and identify which locations I would sit and quietly observe the ceremony. I did follow all rules, I did not stalk the monks in a bus! I was on foot. I made a few observations and became a little excited for the subsequent ceremonies.

At the corner of Sakkarine and Sisavang Vatthana, I noticed there were 10-20 small children and a few women with baskets begging for food from the monks. As the monks rounded the corner, they gave some of their food and money to the children and women. I was in awe of the selfless act that meant so much to the poor. They left with food for the day also. I was amazed that few tourists were on this block. It was a beautiful and meaningful sight and exemplified the Buddhist beliefs.

A little boy just received money from the monks. He was still holding it in his hands.

On Kounxao there were less tourists. This seemed to be more respectful. I witnessed several older townspeople providing the alms instead of tourists. The young novices wandered behind the older novices. I would return the next few days to observe the differences. The pictures from this street were my favorite. 
I was happy I talked about my concerns with the young man at my hotel. His suggestions gave me insight into this ceremony and the culture. The first day, I was disgusted and irritated with the tourists that were being disrespectful. I realize that for me it is important to travel respectfully but that is not something that is important to everyone. I had to accept that some people are looking of the pictures that they can paste on Facebook and tell their friends "look what I did on my vacation." My concern from talking and reading about the ceremony is that it is part of the cultural heritage of Luang Prabang. I do not want to see it disappear. I wanted to say something to the tour operators about their appalling behavior. I bit my tongue and decided to further educate myself. I was going to visit the wats and learn about Buddhism.

As I wandered from one wat to the next I enjoyed the temples, statues of Buddha and observing the monks in their world. The Luang Prabang wats are home to 200-300 monks. The majority are novices monks between the ages of 10 and 20. I was surprised that there were few tourists at the wats. The most I saw was 8 in one wat at a time. I noticed the monks watched me just as much as I was enjoying watching them go about their chores and daily life. At the last wat I visited, Wat Paphaimisaiyaram, 2 novice monks came up to me and asked "where are you from?' I told them the USA. He smiled and told me he liked the American accent the best. They asked if I would practice English with them. I was thrilled!  My chance to learn about the novices and their culture. We went in and sat down in the temple. Since I had done my homework, I knew that I was not allowed to touch the monks, my feet should be facing away from Buddha and I needed to have my chest, arms and knees covered. We talked about our lives, families, Laos and the USA. Two additional novice monks and two dogs joined us in the temple. They explained that their families sent them to be monks in Luang Prabang because they could not afford to send them to school. In Laos, it is customary that a boy will spend at least 1 day to a week as a novice monk. Many of these boys found that being a novice monk allowed them to get an education and learn English. The 4 boys I talked with had been there 3 months to 2 years. The older boys planned to to leave the wats and go to the University after they graduated. At the age of 20, they can decide if they want to be a monk. Then, the elders and community will meet and decide if they will continue. They asked if I had pictures of my family and home in America. I shared my photos. They laughed and asked more questions. I asked about the alms ceremony and their feelings about the tourist behavior. They explained that it helps the townspeople with tourism which is best for the city. I asked if they are offended when the tourists stand close by taking pictures. They smiled and said it is distracting and they wished they would stand further back. One of the older boys, Bandit (means "new monk" in Laos) asked if I would like to return for the evening meditation and speak more English. I was thrilled to be invited!
I returned at 5:45PM for the evening meditation. Bandit invited me into the temple and the ceremony began. I sat on the hard floor enjoying the chanting with pure joy in my heart. The chanting was amazing. I think my heart rate slowed and was in sync with the chanting. Crazy, huh? As the meditation began, they closed the windows and we sat in candlelight. The glow from the Buddha's was beautiful. It was a moment I will always cherish. I was living this moment and reflecting on the amazing journey I was on. Obviously, I am not good at meditation! I could not shut my mind off. It reminded me of the scene in Eat, Pray love where Julia Roberts was trying to flies but very difficult.  I was happy. Their dogs, Blackie and Lucky, were sitting next to me sleeping.
Afterwards, we sat and talked and they practiced their English with me. They offered me an iced coffee and they explained they do not get food at night. Wow! My stomach was growling and I realized I needed to say my goodbyes. As I left, they asked me to come back another day. I promised I would. What an amazing day! I felt much better at the end of the day then I had after the tak bat ceremony and it was due to my experience with the monks. I left with a huge smile and ready to enjoy some spicy Lao food.

I would like to make one request to you if you are traveling to Luang Prabang. As travelers, we need to remember we are visitors in the country and to respect local traditions as a cultural experience. Take photos from a respectful distance. Search out the quiet locations and your photos will be beautiful from across the street.  Please, don’t destroy the centuries-old tradition of tak bat. If you want a professional photo, buy a post card.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

My Final Days in Vietnam

Wow! I just realized how far behind I am on my blog. Sorry about slacking these last few days. I am alive and well. No accidents with motorbikes or falling off bicycles. Whew!

I spent my second day in DaLat wondering and enjoying the city. I started with a beautiful walk around the lake. Everyone seemed to be staring at me. I checked to make sure my skirt was covering my bum and all seemed fine. I was just the attraction. I walked to the café by the lake and started out the morning with traditional Vietnamese breakfast of pho (soup with BBQ pork, rice noodles, bean sprouts, lettuce and herbs).

DaLat is much cooler than the rest of Vietnam. It was a beautiful morning, the air was fresh and I was ready to be active. I had decided to walk out and explore the botanical gardens.  It was nice but a little kitschy like Disneyland.

I had to laugh at this structure. I thought it was a left over Christmas tree but it turns out it was a tree made of wine bottles. Someone had fun drinking all that wine!

I wandered back to town and looked for lunch. I happened upon an art restaurant (Art Café) and went in. I ordered another favorite, shrimp with lemongrass and chili's and a garden salad. As I waited, I wandered the restaurant looking at the artwork. I happened to ask a question to the owner/artist (Vo Trihn Bien) and he offered to demonstrate his finger-painting technique for me. He mixed ink and wine together and started painting. We had a fun conversation and I loved the simplicity of his artwork. I was also amazed that he was able to do it with his fingers. He signed and offered me the painting.
After a few hours of shopping in town, I returned to the hotel but realized it was St. Patrick's Day. How could I not celebrate? I changed into jeans and a jacket and went out for a St Patrick's Day beer and a light dinner. Being alone, I was quickly adopted by three Russian men. They refused to let me sit and enjoy a quiet beer alone on St Patrick's Day. I joined them and they started ordering shots. Bad decision! I  realized I could not hang with them after a few drinks. I wished them a Happy St. Patrick's Day and goodnight but they insisted that I get an escort back to my hotel. We laughed when we realized we were at the same hotel. So, I stayed while they finished there drinks and then we all walked back to the Pink House Villa singing Irish drinking songs! I still laugh as I think of singing Danny Boy with the Russians! A priceless memory!  It was late, I was tipsy and tired. I was getting up early for a walk around the lake before leaving for Hanoi.
Cristina Cruise HaLong Bay
I arrived in Hanoi and was thankful I had a car arranged to the hotel. I was still tired and it had been a long day. I was just spending the night and then I was headed to Ha Long Bay at 8am.
I was excited as I waited for the bus to arrive to take me from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay. I had seen the photos of the bay with the large spires rising out of the blue-green sea. The brown junkets with the beautiful bamboo sails. This was the picture Le showed me as she talked to me about the 2 day/1 night cruise to Ha Long Bay. I could not wait to see the beautiful boats with their sails.
The trip to HaLong Bay was 3.5 hours. I had learned that traffic was very slow in Vietnam but I was amazed that it was going to take that long to go 90 miles. When I finally arrived in HaLong Bay, our guide had tickets and we quickly boarded a small boat to take us to our junket (boat). I was disappointed to see all the boats are now painted white. The government made it a requirement. We were given a welcome tea and then the key to our cabins. I was prepared for the worse but was pleasantly surprised. It was nicer than I had expected. We were given 15 minutes to put on our swimsuits and be back at the dinning area for lunch. I quickly remembered why I hate organized tours...the crazy time schedules and rules. Ugh! But this was the only way to experience HaLong Bay. Lunch was served and we all devoured it. Then we were off to see the bay. Our first stop was the Sung Sot Cave. It was larger than I had expected and a nice hike on the island.
Sung Sot Cave, HaLong Bay

We emerged from the cave hoping the afternoon sun was shining only to find the marine layer was still hanging on. Bummer. It is still beautiful. I must admit, the heavy marine layer gives a mystique to the area.
The next stop was swimming or hiking and then kayaking. I was told the hike was just some steps up to the pagoda and since I had seen a few pagodas, I decided to relax at the beach have a beer and enjoy the sights. The area is a tourist attraction and was named one of the 7 natural wonders of the world. I watched as boats arrived one after another with tourists. I counted 50 boats in the bay.   As I watched, I started to wonder what Vietnam was going to do to protect this beautiful attraction. The smell of the diesel from the boats is strong and you notice a film on the bay. I can't imagine that they will not have to do something at some point. It is beautiful and must be protected.
Sun, my kayaking partner
Kayaking was fun. Since I was alone, a lucky Malaysian girl became my partner. Her first question was "Do you know how to swim?" I told her I could row really well and I can swim. She would be fine as long as I can get in and out of the boat. I am not use to getting into a kayak in the water. The guy told me to step in middle and sit down slowly. Whew! Success! We were off and paddling the beautiful bay. We went into little caves and around the large rocks. It was a wonderful experience and one I will always remember. We were told to be back at the dock in an hour. Getting out of the boat was as scary as getting into it. I put my hands on the edges, pushed up and prayed that I would not tip us over into the bay.  I slowly stood up and stepped to the dock. Thank goodness I had been doing yoga and working on my balance these last 2 years! I made it to the dock without falling into the bay! Yippee!

Everyone returned and filed one by one onto the longboat to return to the Cristina where we were looking forward to showers and dinner. We were all in our life jackets waiting to go when we slowly understood there was a problem with the boat. It would not start. Five men gathered around the motor looking at it. Then they grabbed a rope, wrapped it around the motor and 1,2,3....pull! The boat would not start. This was repeated several times and a piece of the rope broke each time. They would tie it back together and try again...and again. No luck. Our guide looked at us and said "I hope you are good swimmers. If you want dinner and a bed we will need to swim 3 km to the boat." My kayak buddy, Sun, looked at me and grabbed my hand. "You help me swim?"  I smiled and laughed and told her he was joking. The color came back into her face as she realized she was going to be ok. The captain called a larger boat that towed us back. Yeah, we would have showers and dinner soon! The shower felt great after a long humid day on the bay. We had 30 minutes to get cleaned up and to dinner. It was delicious. We had spring rolls, french fries, cucumber salad, chicken, morning glory with garlic, squid with onions and peppers and rice. Followed up with fresh pineapple for dessert. And of course, cocktails. Everyone talked and shared travel stories. I was the only American so it was fun to listen to the different languages and then they would translate what they had just talked about. As the evening continued, the guide told us the evening activities were squid fishing or karaoke. The Asian people enjoyed the karaoke while the westerners all headed to squid fishing so they would not have to sing. Obviously, I went and watched the fishing. It was boring. They shine a light and bob a fishing pole waiting for something to bite.  No luck catching anything. I finally called it a night at 10:00 PM. I returned to my room, opened my windows and enjoyed the fresh air. I was rocked to sleep by the calm sea.
I awoke and looked up and saw the beautiful spires rising from the sea. This was worth the cost of the trip. The marine layer was still heavy but the view was beautiful and mysterious. After a quick breakfast and checking out of my room, I went on top of the boat and enjoyed the view
The morning was a quick sail around the bay and we dropped a few people off at Cat Ba Island. I was short on time since my visa was expiring soon, I was headed back to Hanoi today. I sat on the top deck and just enjoyed the view as I talked to the other tourists. I love the tourists and the things that I have learned as I have traveled. I laughed as I sat listening to two brothers teasing their mom about her packing style. She has a huge book and she tears out each chapter as she finished reading then throws it away. Why? To lighten up her load! Only a traveler would do that! RIGHT? I talked to them a while and they invited me to go to the Snake Farm with them outside of Hanoi. Seems you can go and pick out snake that you want to eat. I hate snakes and there is no way you will get me to a farm with snakes...even if I was going to eat them! I thanked her and told her I would pass. I was going to explore Hanoi. 

I returned to my hotel in time for a dinner and then to bed. I was tired and needed to get a good workout in the morning. My plan was to explore the Hoan Kiem Lake area and get a workout with the locals. I was up and left my hotel at 6 am. It was a quiet and quick walk to the lake. When I arrived, I was amazed at the number of people up and exercising before work. It was locals and very few tourists. The park was full of people walking, doing calisthenics, tai chi, meditating, zumba, karate, badminton and ballroom dancing. I loved it! I felt at home as I did my workout. I was even happier that I had grabbed my iPhone for a few photos.   

I love this old woman who walked in with two canes and then stood and did tai chi while I walked around the lake three times. Other women were meditating. It was an oasis away from the busy Hanoi city traffic. No lights, everyone just goes and you find your way. I found I got use to this and I became really good at weaving my way through the traffic.
I was walking across town to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. I passed the Flag Tower at the War Remnants Museum. While crossing the road I met 2 Danish guys that were headed in the same direction but did not have a map. We decided to walk together and ended up spending the day exploring the city.
Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum. We were told it opened at 2 pm only to find out it didn't. Sorry Uncle Ho, I did not get to pay my respects.
 The school children on a field trip were interested in 2 blondes traveling together. They would stop and stare at us and wanted their picture taken. I love the children! They are so adorable. They greet you and love to use their English. We continued on to the Hoan Kiem Lake and met a group of teenagers that were walking around practicing their English with the tourists.
We were serenaded by a tribal flute. Thomas was very good and loved American English better than proper English! It was a wonderful day. I was hot and tired and ready to call it a day. We said our goodbyes and I went back to the hotel to pack for my departure.

I stopped at the hotel desk and asked about a spa appointment for the morning.  They gave me information and told me to make an appointment in the morning. So, when 2 American guys were sitting at breakfast and started raving about the massages, I told them they had convinced me. I was getting a massage before I flew to Laos. I inquired about an appointment and was told they had one free space. I took it! I was ushered back to the room. There were 4 beds and one was empty for me. The others had my 2 American friends and another man. All were covered with towels and lying face down. The woman held up a sheet and said to take off my clothes. I was a little confused. There were men in here. I decided to remove my clothes but leave my bra and underwear on. The woman started to yell at me. "No! All clothes off! No clothes!" I must have looked shocked because another woman came over and started removing my bra. What?!? I said, "No. Men in here. Keep." The lady looked at me and got angry and pulled my bra. She said "must be no clothes!" I decided I did not want to have a tug-o-war over my bra. What the hell. I didn't want to make a scene. I took off everything and wrapped the towel around me. The women giggled. I quickly laid down on the bed as she draped a sheet over me and took my towel. The massage started and I relaxed and enjoyed it. I needed this. She held up the sheet and told me to turn over. I did. She started massaging my back. I was relaxed. Enjoying the experience. I was drifting to sleep. I remember hearing the American guys get up and leave.  I did not think anything about it. I enjoyed the massage. Afterwards, I showered and got ready for my flight to Laos. I enjoyed a beer as I was waiting for the taxi. Up walked my American friends. They saw me and started to laugh. They wanted to know how I liked my massage. They had all they could do from laughing when I was fighting with the women about removing all my clothes. It seems they had the same fight as there were 2 women in the room on their first day. We all laughed and then they said "by the way, nice tat. We enjoyed the show." It seems I was not well-covered when they left the room. Oh well. I am sure it was nothing they had not seen before! Ha ha! They were not the first to see it!

I loved my time in Vietnam but I am ready to move onward to Laos.  Goodbye Vietnam! I enjoyed the journey!  

Sunday, March 17, 2013

DaLat- Le Petite Paris

DaLat greenhouse- my favorite flower

I left Nha Trang in the morning and headed inland to the mountains of Vietnam. I was ready to cool off and stop sweating for a few days. The bus ride was beautiful through mountains and jungle. However, the switchbacks proved to be too much for several of the people on the bus. I noticed several people walk to the front of the bus and return with a bag. Oh no! It was time for me to put on my head phones if people were going to start throwing up! Those of you that know me well know I do not handle vomiting well. You puke and I will be right there with you. Not holding back your hair and comforting you but throwing up with you! I was surrounded by people tossing their cookies. Including the girl next to me! I kept telling myself to just breathe and listen to music. You can not puke. I looked at the clock and realized it was another hour. Four people around me were throwing up. I took out the Vick's and sniffed. Anything was better than the smell coming from my neighbors. Surprisingly, I survived and did not even gag! That is a huge accomplishment for me! Whew! I was so excited to get off the bus puke free!

DaLat is located in the central highlands and is home to farmers who produce the flowers, fruits and vegetables. The majority of the flowers are grown in greenhouses. It is much cooler here and the smog is significantly less than Nha Trang and Saigon. Yay! I loved the fresh air!  I smiled as I passed the DaLat version of the Eiffel Tower. Since this was a vacation get away for the French, there is a significant French influence. Tacky? I will let you decide.
DaLat radio tower.

DaLat is the last  motorbike tour I will have in Vietnam. I wanted to explore the countryside and hike to the waterfalls. I searched out the Vietnam Easy Riders to take me on this trip. Tin Tin arrived at 8 am and we were on the road. I am not bragging but, I am getting really good at getting on/off a motorcycle. Like I have been riding for years!

Our first stop was the countryside farms. He explained that the greenhouses became popular after a large company came in and built one and the farmers saw that they were able to increase the number of growing seasons. Most of the flowers are grown in the green houses and the vegetables are grown outside.

 I was not surprised to learn that organic farming was not common in Vietnam. Tin Tin explained it is difficult to change the way things are done. We had a long discussion about the amount of littering, the Vietnam/American War and the poor in the country. I asked him to be honest and not give a typical response that the tourists want to hear. I appreciated his candid responses. Basically, unless there are financial reasons, the littering will continue and organic farming is unlikely. The Vietnamese felt very abandoned when America pulled out of the country and he talked to me about the difficulties of the people afterwards. I feel that I have learned more about the war visiting Vietnam than I ever learned in all my years of education.

Our second stop was a nice morning hike. He stopped on the side of the highway and said "Hike up that hill to the top, turn left and come back down. I will meet you on the road." Ok. I hiked the hill. It was beautiful. Pine trees, hills and grass. I noticed an animal had been on the trail and my keen tracking instincts told me it was a horse....I hoped that was all and not a wild animal! I reached the top and looked around. I breathed the fresh air and took a moment to enjoy the view.
The path down was a little slippery but I made it! A great hike to start off the morning. 
The next stop was the oldest Buddist temple in DaLat. I asked Tin Tin to explain Buddism to me. He smiled and said that I got a driver that was Christian. Well, I guess I have some reading to do on the Buddist faith.  

 We continued on our journey through the farmland were I noticed the coffee trees. Tin Tin showed me that each berry had two beans...I never knew that. Honestly, I did not know much about coffee other than I love it in the morning. As we traveled through towns I noticed large tarps on the ground in front of businesses. The farmers remove the beans from the berries and dry the beans in the sun. Then they were bagged and sent to be roasted.

We continued on our adventure. The area around DaLat was beautiful. I enjoyed the curving mountain roads, the flowers and fruits for sale on the side of the road. I was happy and enjoying the ride as much as the sights.
Tin Tin stopped and bought us some fresh strawberries. Then he washed them and we had an impromptu picnic on the side of the road. An old man walked up to us. We shared our strawberries and water with him. Tin Tin talked to him and explained that he was a poor, old, sick man with no family. The Vietnamese government doesn't do much for these people. It is up to the religious groups and families to help the old and sick. So sad. I admit I gave him some dong. My heart just broke for him. The least I could do was buy him a couple meals. I asked Tin Tin about the average salary in Vietnam. I was shocked that the average Vietnamese person makes about $4700 USD/year. Wow!  
We continued down the road. We passed beautiful rice paddies and what I called "free range cows."  
The rice paddies are beautiful. I loved watching the wind blow across the fields like waves. Gorgeous! We rode a little farther and Tin Tin took me to a silk factory. Then asked if I was ready for some hiking. Of course! We arrived at Elephant Falls and he pointed towards a railing and said to go that way and follow the path. He was staying behind to watch the bike. I had 30 minutes to get back to him. I was off. I followed the path, down and over a bridge. No problem. Then I see the orange handrail is gone. Uh-oh!  Just the post and another orange post 6 meters down the rocks. Huh? I had no clue how I was suppose to get down to the falls.  
Where is the path? Uhmmm....
Elephant Falls
I could hear people coming down the path. I looked at them and they were wearing flip flops. Huh. I was glad I had my hiking shoes. I decided to follow them down. I was about half way down when one of them turned to me and told me to go ahead. Fine. I went slowly and made my way around the big rock. I turned to look for the guide because I did not know where to go next. They had turned around and gone back up! It was just me. I was scared I would fall and brake a bone or crack my head open but I had to get to the falls. No stopping me now! I finally made it! I am not a fan of rock climbing and this was as close as anyone will ever get me. I was shaking by the time I got to the bottom. I completely forgot to get a photo. All I could think of was now I had to go back up to the top. Ugh! I must admit that it was easier going back up. I passed several people that turned around and never went more than half way. I was so glad I faced the challenge and did it! Yay me!

When I returned, Tin Tin said it was time for lunch. We went to a roadside cart and ordered chicken with vegetables and rice. Then I sat down on the traditional red stool and ate. After lunch, Tin Tin asked "do you like cats?"
Mmmm...weasel poop coffee.
I wasn't sure where this was going. I replied "Uhmmm.....sure, as long as nobody is killing or eating them!"  He laughed and said he had something special to show me. He took me to the cat (weasel) farm where the weasels are fed a mixture of banans and coffee beans. They poop and the coffee beans are removed from the poop, roasted and sold. Ewwww! They also made rice wine. I drank the poop coffee. It was ok but not that spectacular. This will probably go down as the weirdest thing I eat on this trip. I am not adventurous with food. I gag too much!  I also tasted the the rice wine. Wow! It was more like moonshine! Very strong and burnt the whole way down! 
Our next stop was an ethnic community. We stopped and Tin Tin told me the tradition in the town was that the girl selects a boy she wants to marry and then her family must pay the boys family for his hand in marriage. I liked that the girl got to choose. There are 15 women in the village that weave scarves, bags and tablecloths. I bought a beautiful scarf and then asked if I could walk around the village and take some photos. I was granted permission. Tin Tin was going to stay with the bike. I took off walking and was greeted by two children that would laugh, point at me and run away down the path. Soon they would stop and repeat the sequence.  It became our game. The children would wait on the path for me to catch up with them. I asked if they would like to see a photo of themselves. I showed them the picture and they pointed at themselves and laughed. They were adorable. They motioned for me to follow them down the path. I followed. We passed beautiful fruit and vegetable gardens and a few small homes. Theyturned around several times to make sure I was following them. Then they laughed and ran ahead. I realized they were taking me to their home. They were delighted as they ran into the house to tell their family they had found me. It was adorable and made me smile.
The children took me to their home to meet their family.
I waved goodbye and continued walking. As I was headed back to the main street, I followed by 4 boys. They would walk, one would turn and stare or smile at me. When I got on the motorbike and drove away, they ran after us waving goodbye. I loved the children. I left with a smile on my face and wonderful memories of the village.

We were back on the road and headed to the Dalat Waterfall. When Tin Tin dropped me at the entrance I asked if this was going to be another rock climbing adventure. He said "No, more fun. Take roller coaster." Alright! I walked in and bought a ticket for the roller coaster. It was basically a toboggan on metal tracks with a handbrake. I was strapped in and told to pull the brake towards me to stop. They pushed me off and away I went down the tracks to the bottom. It would have been more fun but the two guys in front of me road the brake down the hill.  It would have been more fun to go faster. At the bottom, it was a short walk to the falls.
A short ride back up to the top of the falls and we were off again. The day ended with a walk through the meditation center and gardens. I took a peaceful walk through the gardens, enjoying the quiet solitude. It was beautiful and the smell of pine trees surrounded me. We returned to DaLat and my hotel. It was a wonderful day exploring the area. I was ready for a shower and a dinner in town. I laughed as I asked for a restaurant suggestion and the guy at the desk gave me directions to a bakery. He said the Russians love it! Ha ha! I thought I should not get in the habit of eating my meals at a bakery and asked for another suggestion. I had a great Vietnamese dinner and a wonderful walk in town. It was a fantastic end to a beautiful day.