Tag Archives: vietnam

Tet – Hoi An, Vietnam

A man stands in front of his home bowing before a table laden with fruit, food and paper money, Joss stick pressed between steepled fingers, whispering prayers with closed eyes.

It is Tet 2015, the lunar new year in Vietnam, and families are gathering around low metal tables on the sidewalk cracking roasted watermelon seeds and piling up empty cans of Biere Larue under the table.

The scent of sandalwood is filling the air on the road to the Thu Bon River, incense sticking out of trees and signs and taped to stray wires, adding density to the warm night air.

Motorbikes line the sidewalks and tourists walk in gutters side-stepping traffic trying to avoid the busy street as hawkers selling candle-boxes and crab doughnuts ask passerby to “Buy something,” wandering from group to group fishing in an overcrowded fishbowl. Further along the river and away from Old Town gather greater crowds of locals waiting patiently for the show.

Sampan on the Thu Bon River, Hoi An

As we reach the riverbank a lady paddles her prow into the thick shoreline grass and asks us if we want a ride. Four dollars?

Why not. We drift amongst the floating candle-boxes lit by  tourists and the Vietnamese family in the sampan gliding next to us. Clusters connect and gather at the bend where the water stills — slowing spinning and lighting the river in a kaleidoscope glow. We pull in next to ten or twelve other boats packed with people waiting for the fireworks.

A family lighting candle-boxes that float down the Thu Bon River

Two minutes after twelve a cheer goes up for the men holding punks as they head for the fuses. Mortars explode and showers of red and blue and champagne gold rain down above us between the collective exclamations of an awe-faced crowd watching the fireworks on the screens of their phones.

Hebah’s head rests on my stomach as we lean back, looking into the smoke-filled sky with child-like smiles. We were both working on December 31st, so this is our recompense. A new year in an old land.

As we walk back home I see the man, his table cleared, standing over a small metal barrel poking orange flames with a metal rod.

burnt offerings

 

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Through the windows, life passes through.

There is comfort in a window. Space. A frame on life that narrows the focus and gives us a quarter-inch of separation from what’s out there, and what’s in here.

                                                                                             



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Drunk advice is the best advice

I once met a drunken guru named David on a rooftop bar in Ho Chi Minh City. He was turning 30, American, and had been traveling since he was 23. This was the last year of his travels, as he had decided long ago that when he reached 30, he would go home, get a job and settle down.

We were drinking Beer Saigon — it was happy hour. It’s always happy hour somewhere in Southeast Asia.

“What is the most life-changing advice you could offer me?” I asked. Eager to glean some advice from a (very) seasoned traveler.

His eyes lit up and briefly focused. He thought for a moment, and said, “Don’t take shit. Stand up… For yourself.”

I nodded thoughtfully and encouraged him to go on.

“Two. Laugh… At everything.”

I laughed.

He looked confused and went on.

“Three… I forget… Doesn’t matter.”

“I think that may be your most brilliant rule,” I said.

We laughed, we cheered, and kept drinking.

 

 

 

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Vietnam: Part 4 — Going South

From Hue to the Mekong Delta

Oh, the joys of the open road. Cool air rushing through your hair, giant monster bugs flying into your mouth, and a sunburn that cost me several layers of skin. And even though the gratuitous protein snacks stained my teeth a sick shade of green, it was well worth it.

We took the road from Hue to Hoi An, winding our way through small villages and mountainous passes hugging the coastline, stopping once for food and again at the Elephant Springs (above). Whenever I was able to tear my eyes from the road and escape the death-grip of my brother Sam straddled up behind me, I glanced around at the breathtaking views before me. Oceans, beaches, forests, rice-fields, everything green, freedom to stop whenever and wherever we wanted, our fears of unscheduled bathroom breaks a thing of the past.

We were able to send our bags ahead of us, allowing us to both fit on the scooter we rented from our hostel and saving us some dong, but if your partner turns out to hate riding scooters and going faster than 20 mph you should probably do this on your own. But after 8 long hours we finally made it to Hoi An.

Hoi An.

A charming city heavily influenced by its French colonizers, who beside ruling them, left a legacy of beautiful architecture, baguette sandwiches, and fashion. Every day hundreds of tailors try to lure you into their shop to get fitted for suits (It worked on us, thank-you Kimmy’s for crafting us some pretty cool gear). But it’s the nightlife we experienced there that was truly unexpected, exciting, even glorious.

The size of the city meant only one thing in terms of bars, there weren’t going to be many. A good thing for travelers, who tend to congregate in one or two bars in cities this size. And this city just happened to have an “after hours” beach club (By law, there is a curfew after midnight, probably the only time I ever realized we were in a communist country). This club shuttled people from the bar in the city to its location on the beach about 5 km away. Then it left you there.

After the third time walking home at 8 AM in only my swimsuit as people were going to work, I realized I didn’t care about being left on the beach. There are far worse places to be stranded.

After staying up until dawn chatting with a stoned out travel bum who had been sleeping on the resort chairs curled up in his silk sleeping-bag for the last month, I realized how enlightening meeting different people on different paths could be. This guy had nothing but a backpack full of paraphernalia and a 5-dollar silk sleeping bag, yet he was rich in experiences and seemed genuinely happy with his situation. I mean, he did get to wake up on the beach everyday.

But beside all that philosophical pondering, skinny-dipping under the moonlight with some new friends wasn’t bad either. At all.

Nha Trang.

Our hop-on-hop-0ff bust left us at the entrance of a hotel in Nha Trang at 6 in the morning after a night of uncomfortable bus-sleeping. It was a bad start to an interesting week dealing with our over-zealous night watchman who would follow us to our rooms demanding money for something? and nab sips of our whiskey cokes. His name was Phuc, and he was an interesting character to say the least. Near the end of our stay we were afraid to go out at night in fear of being locked out by a bleary-eyed, half-crazed Phuc.

The beaches were nice, the food was OK, and nightlife existed, but after the highs of Hoi An, Nha Trang could only be a low.

Ho Chi Minh City, a.k.a. Saigon.

Saigon is somewhat busier and bigger than Hanoi, but instead of the cool, habitable weather in the North, it was hot. Hot, sweaty, and hot, with a side of sticky. And neither myself or my brother do well in hot weather. As the temperature rises, our moods fall, and unless a cool glass of beer is available, it’s almost unbearable. But praise be to the beer gods, we were in luck, there was beer, everywhere.

It’s called Bia Hoi, and translates to something like daily beer, because, well, it’s made every day, then delivered to the doorsteps of the many restaurants and bars around the city. And the cost of one glass of this refreshing low-alcohol lager-style beer? 20 cents. Bia Hoi, Thank You, you saved our lives.

The Mekong Delta.

As we floated through the beautiful channels of the Mekong Delta, sailing by picturesque rice-fields and floating fish-farms, I was almost able to escape that nagging feeling of being ripped off. Almost. Our guide was, simply put, an asshole, who pushed meaningless upgrades, spendy beers and tasteless food on our group the entire time.

Travel is largely a give-and-take symbiotic relationship between locals and travelers, the line between experience and exploitation always being a testy one, but sometimes people, on both fronts, take it too far by either blatantly ripping off tourists or disrespecting the people and culture one travels within. And in this case it was the local who nearly ruined the experience.

But tensions aside, Vietnam had a lot to offer, in food, in landscape, and in friendships, and I’m planning on making a return trip as soon as I can.

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Vietnam: Part 3 — The Perfume Pagoda

The Huong Thic Mountains

Every year, during the months surrounding the Lunar New Year, millions of Vietnamese go on a pilgrimage to the Huong Thic Mountains to visit the Perfume Pagoda, a network of Buddhist temples and shrines nestled among the limestone mountains.

In spite of the many tightly bound tourist packages that offer day-trips that lead to gift shops and mock traditional performances, this day-trip was an actual pilgrimage, and we, the only white people in sight, boated, walked, and climbed our way to the cavernous temple right alongside the Vietnamese pilgrims who were bringing offerings of flowers, food, and fake money to lay before the Buddha.

Our path to the top was lined with food-stalls, souvenirs, and little shops selling cheap offerings to the unprepared. Below is a steer hanging from a meathook, with a dog and a type of strange weaselly looking creature sharing a similar fate just behind it.

Yum. Fresh meat.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have the chance to try it.

Anyway, when we finally made it to the top, there were thousands of pilgrims moving in a slow procession toward the cave, who, once they arrived, would rub the smooth touch-worn walls of the cave, rubbing fake money on the cool stone and shoving it into the many cracks and recesses that lined the cave. Others would stand below a dripping stalactite and mouth the words to a Buddhist prayer as they bowed back-and-forth with supplicatory hands.

It was an interesting view into the religious lives of many of the Vietnamese, a glimpse that usually escapes one’s day-to-day experiences beyond the ubiquitous robe-clad monk one sees strolling through the streets of Anycity, Vietnam.

 

 

 

 

 

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Vietnam: Part 2 — Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Capitalism knows no bounds — even in the serenely beautiful Halong Bay in communist Vietnam. As our “Party” boat floated through the soaring limestone cliffs jutting out of the silent waters of the bay, a woman rowing a boat — dubbed a “floating 7-11” by our guide — came up to the stern of our boat and offered her wares (chips, snacks, beer, alcohol, toothbrushes etc.) to our rag-tag group of travelers.

Though it was promptly staved off by the crew with the express orders of “No buying alcohol,” we had a fall-back. Our boat was a party boat, stocked chalk-full of beer, cheap rice whiskey and low-grade vodka, the perfect fuel for a memorable night of disturbing drinking games and ill-fated romance.


There’s something about drinking, smoking and general debauchery in the face of nature’s grandeur that makes it just.. better. That girl there on my right, her name was Caroline, and Caroline, well, she was French.

To say she was typically French may be taking it to far, but she was feisty, outspoken, and opinionated, not to mention a cigarette-smoking leather-jacket-wearing badass.

Our group consisted of a healthy smattering of Europeans, as well as a a few Canadian and Americans, but the group discussion tended to stay in or around the relationships between the Europeans throughout the night. In general, no one likes their neighboring country, or the French. I was giddy, the Americans were safely out of the cross-hairs for once.

The night continued until the rice whiskey had erased all the boundaries, and we were simply travelers, reveling in travel, and the warm embrace of new friendships.

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Vietnam: Part 1 — Hanoi

Vietnam.

The mist-shrouded border gates of Vietnam provided a fitting welcome to a mysterious and exotically vibrant country. The food, the noise, the curious faces, all serve to add richness to this beautiful landscape hugging the shores of the South China Sea, surrounded by China to the north, land-locked Laos on the west, and Cambodia on its southwestern foot.

It’s hard to describe a country like Vietnam. Anyone who visits it will have their own experience, possibly miles away from what I experienced, but to be open to the experience, in whatever form it takes, lies the importance of travel and self-discovery.

This journey through Vietnam starts in the North.

Hanoi

Wending ones way through the crowded streets and alleyways of Vietnam’s northern capital is an exhilarating feat of survival and sensory gluttony. The millions (literally) of motorbikes weaving their way through traffic, food carts, trash and humanity itself create the backdrop to nearly every experience one has in Hanoi.

Watching pedestrians weave their way through them to cross the street sans traffic lights as we drank a steaming cup of rich, black vietnamese coffee (caphe den) safely tucked away in a cafe stories above the street.

Drooling as motorbikes laden with an impressive array of fresh fruits, boiled peanuts, soups, meats and mysterious culinary delights I may never again encounter drove down alleys that no cars could possibly fit through.

Listening to the erratic pops and whirs as I lay in my ten dollar per night bunk in the Old Quarter.

But, if a Vietnamese happens to be motorbike-less, they’ll hop onto the back of their friends or families. As I write this, a motorbike I once saw laden with a family of six wobbles its way through my memories as I watch in amazement with a sick sense of impending doom.

Hanoi, in spite of it’s gloomy shroud of pollution, is a city with a character all it’s own, and has worked its way into my heart as one of my favorite cities.

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Travel as quiet reflection

A quiet day at Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi

The quiet lake stared silent, resting under its protective blanket of fog.

I stared back from the grassy shores, sharing its hazy blanket, and together we pondered.

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