Thursday, January 13, 2011

Tiger Balm

Vietnam...after Cambodia...was tiger balm, for me, most of the time.

(Tiger balm: not made of tiger. Soothing balm for headaches, joint aches, and, as we had to learn through experience, sand flea bites and other varieties of bug bites. Oh, and sunburn! It's kind of magic).

Maybe it sounds cheesy, but Vietnam was tiger balm for my soul. It was my spoon full of sugar to swallow Cambodia...okay, it felt like one giant party.

We started by cruising down the Mekong, landing in a scary border town followed by a scary border bus ride to a scary motorcycle taxi to an absolute OASIS of a hostel--breakfast, television, hot SEPARATE shower, air conditioner. After a lovely night of sleep, we walked through some lovely parks to the educational (albeit horrifying) war museum, which gave me a completely new outlook on the Vietnam War. Of course, it was skewed towards their point of view, but it's fascinating to be able to see a war from both sides.

We also stopped for ice cream that day, and were able to make our way pretty well around the city. However, neither of us particularly loving cities, we hopped on a bus the next day to the lovely little beach destination of Mui Ne. The bus we hopped on just happened to be the best bus we rode in Asia...empty, upper bed-seats, clean bathroom ON the bus. It was heaven, and to top that off, I had a good book and some chips...yep, paradise.

Paradise continued when we found a little bungalow to stay in, right on the beach. We spent several days swimming in the glorious water, watching the kite surfers crash, walking around in the beachy rain, eating Indian food, and shopping for beachy jewelry. After we got sick of the attack of the sand flies (Court was co-VERED) and after we rented a motorbike (love it) and went sand-duning and hiking with some kind (and eventually greedy) boys to "Fairy Springs," we hopped on another bus up to Nha Trang.

On this bus we met Arthur, a young Californian who had also visited his brother in the Peace Corps in Thailand and was now travelling through Vietnam. So began our party days--lots of fun in Nha Trang in the evening, an accidental trip on a Booze Cruise through Nha Trang Bay (we signed up thinking it was a snorkeling cruise...about three minutes of snorkeling, a random visit to an aquarium, and lots of wine, swimming, and karaoke) and then, planning to get up to Ha Long Bay by Court's birthday on December 13th, we hopped up the country, stopping briefly in Hue to wander along the river.

Vietnam is really (yet another) gorgeous country. Even though we shot quickly up the coast, we got some nice glimpses, and we really were having so much fun. And suddenly, we were on the long-awaited sojourn to Halong Bay (Dragon Bay--so named as all of the islands look like parts of a dragon's back). I really love the Vietnam coast--and despite bratty tourists, stressed out tour-hunting, the crazy streets of Hanoi and SO. MUCH. RAIN, I loved Halong Bay. It was so fun to sail the bay, kayak in the bay, meet some actual NICE Americans and some more fun Austrailians, and accidentally hop on another Booze Cruise (the Halong Party Cruiser, baby!)

We spent an overnight on the boat, and woke up on my cousin's birthday to a somewhat sunrise view of the bay. While much of the people on our boat had a rough night, accompanied by rats and no water, we had a very nice night in our little berth! I loved staying on a boat!

After breakfast, we sailed to Cat Ba Island, the only inhabited island in the bay, and ended up on this random, strenous, occasionally terrifying hike through the national park on the island to some truly breathtaking views.

We detached ourselves from the whiny tour group (we were planning to stay on the island for a few days), found a hostel with a fantastic view (and smelly bathroom) and wandered around for the beaaaaaaautiful beaches. It was way too cold for ME to swim, although that didn't deter many, but I was very happy to wander the cliffside trails, and I think my cuz had a good birthday!

That night, we ended up going out and having a fantastic time with some Israelis we met at a bar, while we were having the birthday drink I convinced Court she needed. It was a fun, crazy, night, and the next day, we definitely needed to recover. We ran into Arthur and his climber friend Nick, and we all had dinner with a nice South African couple, where I discovered Vietnamese dinner rolls, my latest favorite food.

After my our stay in Cat Ba, and an eventful trip back to Hanoi, the capital, we suddenly only had a week left of our adventure! At this point, we were getting a little nervous about the military situation in South Korea, where we had another ten hour (ick) layover, and about our visa situation (we had already overstayed, and were given a lot of conflicting advice, most which was we'd simply bribe the officers at the airport and be on our way).

After a quick stopover in Hanoi, and seeing the Chronicles of Narnia in the theater (gotta love that Western world influence sometimes) we spent a few days in the beautiful mountain city of Sa Pa, via train. The overnight train ride was rather unfortunate as we'd gotten ripped off (thanks for all that magic, Asia) but it still was kind of cool! Nothing like the trains in Europe sadly...but not bad.

In Sapa, I started to get really excited for Christmas, as it was freezing and we spent many joyful hours around fires with Vietnamese pho (chicken soup basically, delicious) and coffee. Sapa is also a fabulous place to shop, so we loaded up on some gifts and beautiful scarves, purses, and knock-off Ray Bans.

We also hiked around a beautiful little park, way up on the hill, and got a great view of the valley, lost each other, found each other, and saw lots of rice hats. (Yes, a true stereotype that I absolutely LOVED). We also went to a church, sat on the wrong side of the church (the men's side), got surrounded by another tourist family for pictures, and were flummoxed by the service. I expected Christmas carols and a service I knew...nothing, ha.

On our way down from Sapa, we met an awesome Italian named Marco who convinced us to journey to the border of China and try to step through. We couldn't--we started walking up to the bridge when guns were waved, and that was it for me!--but it was a grand adventure in any case.

Our last final days in Hanoi included more shopping, ice cream, a traditional water puppet show (a real art form which was pretty sweet) and samples of pho, Indian food, and Vietnamese weasel coffee, which I also loved. (Yes--that is the coffee that is passed through the intestines of a weasel...tastes like chocolate, no joke). We visited temples, had coffee with an old Vietnamese Frenchman (born in Vietnam, raised in France) who let me practice my pitiful French, and spent a lot of time exploring the city. We also spent about an entire day trying on beautiful Vietnamese silk, I bought a dress and my cousin a shirt as a late birthday present. It took a lot of convincing to get her to accept it, but I think she ended up liking it. :) Another highlight of our last few days was a trip to visit Ho Chi Minh, or "Uncle Ho" as he is still called in Vietnam. It was our second mummy--although he was so well preserved and so ridiculously protected that I got shooed and glared by the soldiers at for staring at the little old man who seemed to be napping (in a giant mausoleum in a giant park).

Before we knew it...we were on our way out of the country! Our trip was at a close...and we got to the airport, unaccountably nervous due to our visas. And was that an adventure...the guy was a jerk, he had the nasty mole-hair, and he threatened detainment if we didn't provide more moola.

Let me just say, I was NOT being detained in Vietnam two days before Christmas. So, we smiled determinedly (well, I did) having learned that if you yell at a man in Vietnam, they unforgivably Lose Face and the situation will grow progessively worse (as we witnessed on our ill-fated tour in Halong Bay). Although we had to pay a little more than we thought, I had pictured detainment and huge fines, so I was relieved at the 30 or so dollars we lost...I hate being ripped off, but I was so grateful he didn't break out the handcuffs I saw, and I was so grateful to be going home for Christmas!!!

Ok, going to California to be with my cousins, aunts, uncles and grandpa for Christmas...but close enough. :)

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