Only Backpacking

Only backpacking do you have someone walk in the room and say “Oh, you’re cutting your toe nails?! May I join you and borrow your clippers?”

Only backpacking do you consistently steal toilet paper from hostels/hotels/inns, what have you.

Only backpacking do you contemplate purchases by weight and size.

Only backpacking do you talk about poo and pee and not have it considered an adolescent conversation, but pertinent and useful information.

Only backpacking do you meet people from all over the world every day.

Only backpacking do you keep every plastic bag you can get your hands on.

Only backpacking is it appropriate to walk around in your underwear in front of strangers (hostel dorms!).

Only backpacking do you say, “hey, I don’t know you, but would you like to share a cab?” or “I don’t know you, but would you like to share a hotel room?” or “I don’t know you, but may I sleep on your shoulder?”

Only backpacking do you sit down to a meal still not knowing who you will end up sharing the meal with.

Only backpacking is “how many kilos is yours?” a common question.

Only backpacking do you see new places every day and truly never know where tomorrow will take you.

New Kitchen Window Piece on Thai Cooking

 Sweet And Spicy Flavors Of Northern Thailand

Actual Update

Okay, okay, my Vietnam rant aside (see below), I am still having a great time. It’s not the laid-back, calm trip I’d experienced thus far, but I am glad I am here and seeing this country.

I took a few days to relax at the beach in Nha Trang, on the South China Sea. It was absolutely beautiful and a needed break. Yesterday I was in Hoi An, an old port city with Japanese, Chinese and French influences in architecture. It is one of the few towns spared during the Vietnam war. Now, it is a tourist hub for the beach and getting clothes and shoes made. It’s a bit Vietnam Epcot. You need to pull yourself out of the hubbub to appreciate the buildings and the town itself instead of the screen of tourist mayhem.

Today I am in Hue, the former capitol, where I visited the city Citadel and Forbidden Purple City. It was very interesting to see the Vietnamese architecture and old language, which to me seems to very Chinese. They use dragons and lots of red and black and gold. Most of the Citadel was destroyed during the Vietnam war, but what was left and what has been restored was very beautiful and I was able to see another side of Vietnamese culture, one with concubines and emperors.

Tonight I take the night bus to Hanoi, the current capital and mosey around there and Halong Bay for the week before I head to Singapore! I will be ready to head out when I do, but I am super excited to see Halong Bay, a place many say is the most beautiful place they have ever been.

Love from Vietnam!

Dear Vietnam

Dear Vietnam,

Enough with the shenanigans. I have come to marvel at your beautiful country and you, your vendors, motorbike drivers, cycles, are making me want to run away. Or punch you in the face.

First off, why oh why do you feel the need to scam and cheat all the time? It is one thing to set a price and deliver whatever service or product we agree to (even if overpriced, that’s the charge of being a tourist). It is another to set a price, provide the service/product then demand 10 times the price agreed. Or perhaps, pretend to have no change. Or refuse to sell something worth $1 for less than $10. They didn’t do this to me in Thailand, Cambodia or Laos. Just here.

I had heard of your unscrupulous, conniving ways before arriving, but I came with the belief in giving the benefit of the doubt. 2 weeks later, I know I was naive. Your land is so beautiful, your towns colorful and historic, but you ruin it with your incessant “you buy something!” “where you go?”, and one dollar bike rides that in the end are $40.

You know what you are? You are the older sibling that makes a fixed $1 bet with the younger sibling and after winning assures the youngest that their $10 bill is actualy a $1 bill.

I have been fortunate enough to avoid your most evil of scams, but many of my friends have not. If you could kindly stop ripping people off and badgering every second of the day, it would be much appreciated. Understand we are here to enjoy, to learn. Do not take me on a museum tour and spend 3/4ths of the time in the gift shop instead of the museum.

Kindly,

One of the many irritated, fed up and tired tourists.

And P.S.- Your food stinks and has made me repeatedly ill. All this talk about great Vietnamese food, and this is what you deliver? Bahn mi aside, I don’t get what all the fuss is about. Where are the goods? Sorry, Vietnam, sometimes the truth burns.

Ho Chi Minh City, What Up?

Well, I have been making my way through Vietnam this week. After the Mekong, my first stop was Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon. I had heard from friends and my dad that Saigon was a mess. Crossing the street felt like, “an army of motorbikers coming at you,” according to my dad. “It’s crazy, loud, too crowded,” he said.

With my expectations set extremely low, I was pleasantly surprised with my time in HCMC. Yes, it does feel like a gang of motorbikers is on attack at every intersection, but overall, I found the city to be well manicured, with very interesting museums and unexpectedly affordable. It has all the symptoms of a large city- it is extremely crowded, a bit dirty and there are large blaring lights starting down on you as you walk home at night, yelling, “Toshiba,” “Sony”!

My only night in the city I went to the night market outside Ben Thanh market. On my way, I saw an aerobics class taking place in the park and a salsa class under a pagoda, lots of women following a blasting boom box and their instructor.

The market was filled with vendors selling cheap shoes, shirts, shorts, you name it. Row after row of similar products. (The vendors here are so aggressive, it is a huge put-off in going to these places. “Hey, what you looking for?” “You buy something,” “Happy hour, buy one get one free.” I understand it’s just a cultural difference, but I honestly find it hard to get used to. Everywhere you go here, someone is yelling at you for something. They all want something from you. Every time I find a space of quiet, I just sit in silence and breath, appreciating the break from chaos.)

Besides the to-be-expected pestering, I enjoyed the market. I ate at an outdoor restaurant, all plastic tables and chairs but with waiters in suits. It was excellent. I sat down right after opening and in about 10 minutes the place was full; “I chose good,” I thought to myself. I ordered a Saigon beer (green) and banh xeo, a prawn and pork filled omelet/pancake wrap. It arrived about twice the size I’d expected, with an array of goodies to eat it with: lettuce, Thai basil and mint. I was sitting next to two girls from Japan, Ann and Ying, who I’d introduced myself to, and we were all baffled as to how to eat my dinner.

I kindly asked the waitress to demonstrate, and she picked up two pieces of lettuce, laying them atop one another, then layering a good mound of basil and mint, finally grabbing a piece of the pancake. Then she rolled it ever so neatly and motioned that I then dip it in the sweet chili sauce. Heaven. Basically fried goodness wrapped in the clean, crisp vegetables and herbs. Genius, really, and totally easy to replicate at home.

Ann and Ying looked over, eyeing my food, and I pushed the plates their way. “Go for it,” I said. “Really?” Ann said, “Eat some of our fried rice.” And that was how a friendship was born, haha. It’s such a great way to get to know people, over food, isn’t it? It was a lovely dinner and I was glad to have nice people to share it with. Before I left they had a bowl of flaming prawns and told me I couldn’t leave before trying one. The shrimp had been pre-boiled, it looked, but then a flame was lit under their heads, arranged like an opposite shrimp cocktail, tails in, heads out, ready to be cooked. A very fine finale to the meal.

The following day I took myself on a walking tour of the city. My Lonely Planet has a tour mapped out and I followed it to a tee (well, until the 6th hour when I felt my legs were about to collapse under me). The first stop was a morning breakfast of pho bo (Dad, it turns out “bo” is beef) at Pho Quynh. They presented me with a steaming bowl of beef soup with noodles, and sides of greens (not sure what) and basil along with bean sprouts, limes, and a salt and pepper mix. I began tossing things in and the waiter gave me a thumbs up. Quite yummy, though I’ve decided I like chicken or pork pho more than beef. The beef soup is super think. It’d be perfect for a cold night, but a hot morning? Not so much.

Moving on, I went back to Ben Thanh to see the market in full force during the day. I bought a hat and ran into Carolyn, who I’d parted ways with the day before. From there, I was off to the Fine Arts Museum. I found the building to be the most interesting part, yellow and white walls and slight Chinese and French architectural influences. Next stop a street market where locals rode up on their motorbikes to collect their goods from stalls, women still sitting on their bikes, ordering cuts of meat or fruit. After, Lonely Planet wisely schedules a coffee and ice cream stop at Cafe X. Lovely lovely. Great coffee here! Much better than at home!

The next stop was the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City, where I again ran into Carolyn. The museum is housed in a building from 1886 and was originally a palace. The museum showcases paraphernalia, maps, works of art, and replicas concerning the last 300 years Vietnam’s history. Some of my favorites were a double floor boat used to smuggle arms during the Vietnam War (which here they call the American War). I also found the basement of the building fascinating. Floors down is a bunker that runs all the way to the Reunification Palace. My book notes that in 1963 President Diem and brother hid there before fleeing to Cha Tam Church during a coup attempt. They still have some of his living room furniture on display in the bunker.

Next stop, the War Remnants Museum. Growing up hearing about the Vietnam War, I was never able to really wrap my head around the scale, the purpose, who it affected, etc. This museum helped put a lot of that into perspective, which was in many ways hard to see.

Walking in, there is a photography display of all the rallies that took place around the world against the US war in Vietnam, an entire room dedicated just to rallies in the US. Upstairs is an exhibit called Requiem that showcases the photographs of Tim Page and other photographers on both sides who covered the war. This was the hardest section for me to see. Photos of VC suspects stripped naked and roped together, US soldiers bloodied, so many atrocities. But what makes this museum different than others is the personal quality to it. Below each photo is a description of the situation or who each person is, how they die, what their job was etc. Further into the gallery is a collection of photos of victims of agent orange, a pesticide the US used on the forests to find the Viet Cong. Today it’s created a multitude of genetic mutations that continue to affect Vietnamese and Americans today: deformed limbs, lack of sight, skin disease, conjoined twins and many stillborn births. I heard of a speech therapist who just hired by the Vietnamese to work with the large numbers of Vietnamese children born with cleft palates due to agent orange.

The museum kind of sucked out all my oomph, plus the exhausting heat, so my last few stops were brief: the Reunification Palace, Notre Dame (yes, you read that right), and the Post Office. The post office was actually awesome, built from 1886 to 1891 in French style. There are wonderful old maps of Vietnam and SE Asia and was a beautiful final stop.

From there, as you can imagine I was totally exhausted, so I headed back to the hotel to get ready for my night bus to Nha Trang, a beach town 12 hours north of HCMC.

I could have spent more time in the city, but I think I accomplished all the things I had set out to. I am not sure if I could live there, it may be too hectic for me on a day-to-day basis, but as a place to visit, I really enjoyed my day and a half there. I would certainly go back, and take a second visit to the museums.

As a younger American, it gave me a whole new perspective on the Vietnam War, not necessarily from the propaganda in the museums, but just becoming familiar with the people, who it seems live quite happily under a Communist government (or a Socialist Republic, as they call it, with a reigning Communist party), and the spaces where the fighting took place. It just makes the whole event even more awful and mind-boggling than I could ever feel before.

Mekong Madness

My oh my oh my, where to start? Perhaps in Phnom Penh where my travel buddy, Carolyn, and I were driven to the Vietnam border with an angry Swiss couple, or in Can Tho where we were flashed by an 84 year old Vietnamese woman who seemed rather amused by the whole thing, or in My Tho where I celebrated my birthday and learned of Osama bin Laden’s death? Too many stories to tell from the past week.

I guess I will go the obvious route- chronologically. First and most important to note, I met a woman named Carolyn in my hostel in Phnom Penh. She is 54, works in IT and is from England. Her previous travel buddy from home ditched her when she met a man in Singapore. She and I were a perfect match and stuck together for a tour through the Mekong Delta.

Day 1 Vietnam:
We made our way to the border town of Chau Doc by bus and boat, crossing officially into Vietnam.

Coming ashore in the small fishing town, the differences were blatantly apparent. The energy had changed, people’s facial expressions were different, the homes were more ornate, even the poor had well decorated facades. It felt more, well, Communist. More serious, put together, closed off, red flags everywhere. Within the first few hours Carolyn and I noted that we felt more like outsiders in Vietnam, looking in from the outside, rather than visitors invited in, as I’d felt in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.

This is not to say I enjoy Vietnam any less, it’s just different. It feels entirely new.

Carolyn and I grabbed dinner in town, wandering the local market first, trying a custard apple and a strange gelatinous drink (not my fave). Dinner was pork, rice noodles and spring rolls. Delish.

Day 2 Vietnam:
The next day we toured the fishing village and Cham minority village, a small Muslim community in the Mekong. We visited their mosque and learned more about Delta life. In the afternoon we headed to Can Tho for our homestay. Expecting a house that we would stay in with a family, we were a bit surprised to end up at a bungalow resort. It was set up exactly like a hostel, except for the fact that there was one large meal prepared for all the travelers. With that disappointment aside, we ended up in a very nice bungalow with extremely interesting people staying there as well.

The owner, Hung, took us on a boat ride to show us where they make straw mats, a blacksmiths workshop (where the flashing took place) and a home where they make rice wine.

Returning home, I had one of the more enjoyable meals of my trip. Around the table we had a family living in HCMC, Steve, a music teacher from Oregon, his wife Suchin, a Chinese teacher and their 6 year old son Evan (a bilingual half white, half Chinese American kid living in Vietnam), plus their friend from home, Heather. Then there was Claus, and his wife Connie, who grew up in East Germany, had family in West Germany and worked as a soldier at the Berlin wall for 3 years. Then there was Derias, a greeting card salesman from Poland, Hank, a Dutch furniture salesman whose company abuses the low-cost Vietnamese labor (buys oak from Romania, ships it to Vietnam to be made and shipped to Holand to be sold. And makes a profit), Carolyn and myself. Definitely the odd crowd. And what were we all doing together? Leaning how to wrap spring rolls.

We had a decadent meal of fried spring rolls and make-your-own fresh rolls with steamed fish, cucumber, tomato, rice noodles, lettuce, basil, and tofu and green beans on the side. For desert, we tried banana wine, made from fermented, smashed bananas. It was delicious! We stayed up late discussing the war in Poland and Darius’ experience, Claus’ time at the Berlin wall and meeting his family after the wall came down, and Hank’s oddball business strategies. It was fascinating. A history lesson for me about Poland and Germany, but also just a profound experience to meet such a diverse crowd and gather for an amazing meal out in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. What a world.

Day 3 Vietnam (My Birthday!):
After the Mekong homestay we saw a floating market in Can Tho (unimpressive), a fruit farm (very pretty, best mango ever) and a rice noodle factory (surprisingly interesting). Then we drove to My Tho, our final stop, and Carolyn and I decided to rest in the hotel room. Little did we know that when we turned on the TV (for the first time on our whole trip) we’d see the news about Osama bin Laden. I must say, it was odd to hear about while being abroad. I didn’t know what the reaction would be at home. I wanted to celebrate, but felt odd celebrating a death… plus, it was my birthday! Osama was stealing my thunder 🙂

Carolyn and I went out for a delicious meal and called it a night. I watched the news and talked to my parents. It felt like an eventful day.

Day 4 Vietnam:
Our final day we had a fantastic guide who showed us a Buddhist temple and all around Ben Tre, a collection of 4 islands. The Buddhism in Vietnam is an odd amalgamation of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. Although they just label it Buddhism, it has little in common with the Buddhism of Thailand. It incorporates animistic elements and even reflects Christian imagery. Buddha himself is portrayed differently. Whereas in Thailand Buddha was stoic and God-like, here, he is a really fat, jolly man, with sagging bits.

This day was the first time I was really able to see untouched parts of the Mekong. I’d recommend to anyone coming out here to stop by Ben Tre. There are even floating bungalows to stay in out there that looked beautiful. There were large palm leaves coming out of the water, shadowing the boat that looked like overgrown feathers. The water was so still we could just glide along when we were in a canoe later in the day. It was a cleaner, greener area that I was glad to see.

At the end of the day we bused up to HCMC. It was an odd tour, with different tour guides each day and never knowing what activity would come next, but all in all I feel like I saw a lot, learned a lot and met interesting people. It was a great way to spend my birthday!

Notes about Cambodia

I have loved my two weeks in Cambodia. After leaving Siem Reap, Emma and I traveled to Kampot and Rabbit Island. Kampot was a rundown old French town that provides tours to an abandoned palace and large caves off the sea (both of which, I must admit, we skipped. I was a bit touristed out). They are known for growing Kampot pepper. Rabbit Island is off the coast of Kep, a small beach town on the Gulf of Thailand. The island had four or five separate bungalow resorts. We stayed overnight for in a super cute bungalow with mosquito net, shower, and porch. It was a great break to lay around. Also, wonderful seafood! I am pretty sure I ate a piranha. HUGE teeth! (Side note: we could see Vietnam from the island).

My favorite moment was waking up early and going in the ocean while it rained. No one was around, just me, the water (which was super super warm!) and the rain.

I head to Vietnam tomorrow. For now, here are few random notes on life in Cambodia:

-Pajama sets are the “it” fashion. Presumably starting because pajamas are, well, clothing, and cheaper than a proper shirt and pants, floral, teddy bear and polka dot jammies are all the rage.

-There is a ton of construction, roads, buildings, power lines. It is very clearly a nation in repair.

-About 50% of the population is children. As Cambodia has faced war after war (French colonization, WWII, then Khmer Rouge), with 3 million adults killed between 1975 and 1978 alone (including all teachers, doctors, scholars), the population is lacking in adults and is either encouraging reproduction or not providing birth control information.

-There are a limited number of paved roads here, but the number is sure to grow exponentially in the next decade. You have to take the road to Phnom Penh to get anywhere else, even if that’s totally out of the way.

-Amok is the famous Khmer dish. It is a mild yellow curry with veggies and, generally, fish. Kampot pepper is another famous Cambodian product. I had fried crab with Kampot pepper while in Kampot and it was awesome. (Side note: Anthony Bourdain does the same thing in his Cambodia episode. I sat down in the restaurant and thought, “This looks familiar.”)

-They swim in their clothing (same as Thailand!).

-They call Thai basil “holy basil” and the Thai fisherman pants “Cambodia fisherman pants.” Who can blame them? The Thai still want control of the border temples and they are so much wealthier than Cambodia, it seems like stealing from a peasant. The Thai are also very proud that they were never colonized, which I think is rubbed in the face of the Khmer. Additionally, the Khmer claim that most of Thai culture (music, dance, art) was taken from Angkor Wat; when Thailand formed, they took the artists from Angkor Wat and brought them to Thailand. Thailand is definitely seen as the mean older brother in this region, which I of course could not observe until I left Thailand. (Even so, I still love Thailand! Shh)

-Women sweep the streets by hand at night with a broom. No machinery.

-Men are housekeepers/cleaning maids.

-Cambodia’s main products are silk, rice, and coffee. If durian were more popular, it would probably be durian too.

-They have karaoke bars and “karaoke bars,” hint hint, nudge nudge. Women sing, men choose.

-There are several older white men walking hand in hand with super young Cambodian women.

-They have a saying here, “no money, no honey.” Men do not find a wife until they have made a good living.

-They have “happy pizza” here.

-There is apparently a drug trade within the monk hood. Because the economy is so poor, men began joining the monastery for monetary reason. As a result, they do not respect the Buddhist values and use drugs and prostitutes.

-As I walk down the street, all I hear is, “tuk tuk, lady?” “motorbike, lady?” “where you go, lady?” And when you say no, they go, “Maybe tomorrow?”

Hoping to join a tour of the Mekong tomorrow, but if not, I will be in Ho Chi Minh next. Wish me luck!