Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Blondie and the Pirates Who Don't Do Anything

We had a full seven days to wait for our Chinese visa to be processed. The lengthy time period probably had something to do with the fact that our passports needed to be sent from Vietnam's capital, Hanoi, where we were in the north, all the way to the south of the country, a good thousand kilometers away to Saigon. Apparently, to have your visa processed in Hanoi, they require a list of every place in China you plan on visiting, in addition to loads of other information, all translated into Mandarin. If you have your visa processed in Saigon- They just need your address- and that can be in English. The non-sensical (to me) set up is odd, especially considering that Hanoi is much, much closer to China's border than Saigon is. But really, it doesn't matter. We wanted to go to China- and so we had to wait.

What better place to wait then on an island in beautiful Halong Bay? As many of you have or will in the (hopefully near) future receive postcards from Halong Bay, or Vietnam (we did send 67 more postcards, after all) you've probably already read my spiel. But, again, Halong Bay was majestically scenic. The 'Bay' is massive. Our tour guide said 550 square kilometres, from what I remember. There are bagillions of towering, sheer karst islands dotted throughout the calm, serene, glassy waters. It really was some of the most stunning scenery we have ever seen.

After deciding on a travel agent in Hanoi, we booked a full day tour to Cat Ba Island- the biggest in the Bay, with ample tourist structure, and then an open ticket to return back to Hanoi at our leisure- aka when our China visas were ready for pick up. Our goal was to avoid Vietnam's busy, chaotic Capital as long as possible.

'The bus will pick you up at your hotel between eight and nine in the morning,' our fast talking travel agent told us. 'Be ready.' Its akin to waiting for the washing machine repair man, or the furniture delivery guy. You have to rush be there, just in case they decide to show up at some point during the designated pick up time- but you know that odds are- they won't. They will come five minutes before you're there, or, in our case that morning, at 945am. We were getting antsy. By 'picking us up at our hotel' she must have meant, 'someone will jog by your hotel and you need to chase them down a few streets and through a confusing alley network, running just to see which alley they disappear into next, to your allocated, over-stuffed, tourist only, mini-bus.' We were the second last people to be picked up. This meant that we didn't actually have seats until everyone's bulging backpacks (WHAT do these people pack?) were rearranged, shoved under every seat, jammed in every corner and made into a wall separating the chain-smoking bus driver from the passengers. (Maybe this was a good thing). We picked up one last couple- who, although we didn't know it at the time, would later become the stars of the day. They looked pretty young. The girl was tall and lanky, sporting one of those short, one piece flowery outfits that only those kinds of girls can pull off. She had long wavy blonde hair, a nose that curved up slightly at the tip and a glare that would challenge Medusa. She was going to be entertaining, that much was clear. And she was pissed. Although, in her defense, they were picked up almost an hour late and now, on the bus they were in an even worse standing position than us- wedged between everyone's grubby backpacks, our tour guide's arm pit and the greasy bus door. This was the kind of girl who was clearly used to getting her own way- and even more clearly- that wasn't happening right now. Her poor boyfriend. Do people ever look at Jonathan and think that, I wonder? haha She pouted as the tour guide worked around her, re-arranging all the bags. Stools were pulled out for us to sit on. No worries. It was only a four hour bus ride to the port. I was so close to my neigbours that I could hear their ipods through their headphones. There was a massive backpack wedged under my stool so my legs were folded up to my chin. Did I pay for this seat or were they going to pay me for babysitting this backpack? The only saving grace was that my left side 'neighbour' -if you can call a stranger that physically close to you a neighbour- was a super friendly guy from PEI who had brought with him a sleeve of emergency oreos- which he happily shared- this was an emergency. Now that's what I call a good neighbour. Or whatever. The blonde girl was seated on a stool a couple ahead of mine. The whole bus could tell, by her constantly exaggerated fidgeting and the way she flicked her hair and sighed loudly every thirty seconds, that this set up was not ideal. After we had stopped for a break midway, her boyfriend replaced her on the stool and she lounged atop a pile of bags at the front of the bus.

We arrived safely at the port a number of hours later, ready to be out in the Bay on our adventure. Of course it didn't happen quite that way. First, we had to all stand around in the parking lot for about an hour to be organized based on what excursion we had paid for. There were people who had just paid for transport, people with lunch included, people with hotel packages and people sleeping on the boat overnight. Some people's passports had to be collected, some people had to buy tickets... blah blah blah. It was a lengthy ordeal that involved a whole lot of standing around. We were happy that we had plenty of time for Halong Bay. If we would have been on a short two or three day tour, all the waiting around would quickly become frustrating.

Finally, we were herded onto the boat, which was surprisingly nice, and were served a surprisingly delicious lunch (we had paid an extra $4 for the ticket, after all). The boats are called 'junks.' Many suit their name. It wasn't hard to imagine one of the junks sinking, as occurred with that tragedy in February. We smashed and pushed and pretended to be a bumper-boat while squeezing our way past (and sometimes into) all the other boats sharing the narrow slip. It was foggy, but even with the limited visibility we could tell we were in for a very scenic boat ride. Towering karst islands rose from the sea creating a unique, almost eerie landscape. The closer we got to the islands, the more stunning the view became. It was hard to put the camera down and simply enjoy the view. Every time we rounded craggly peaks or cut through narrow passages, it was more beautiful.

After making our way through the bay, stopping at a couple floating villages, an absolutely amazing cave and buying fruit over the side of the boat from 'travelling fruit kids' in row boats we arrived at Cat Ba Island. Cat Ba is the biggest island in Halong Bay and the only place with an actual town with hotels and restaurants and such. We disembarked onto a long pier and trudged down it towards where our tour guide had pointed, and there were parked buses. The pier was on the opposite side of the island from CatBa town and we had about a 45 minute bus ride ahead of us. It was 17:30 and the sun was low. The travel agent we had bought our tickets from was one of the more honest ones (or I just bombarded her with so many questions that she gave up lying) and our day had gone pretty much as she said it would. Other travellers weren't so lucky. Some had been told that they would arrive in Cat Ba town at 2pm, and therefore hadn't brought any food, and their tickets didn't include lunch. They were hungry, tired and frustrated. Understandably.

At the end of the long pier are two minibuses. We start piling our bags on the roof, as is the norm, and begin to wonder how all 30 of us are possibly going to fit in two 7 seat mini buses. Our tour guide yells from the other end of the pier. 'Not those ones.' Ok. Well at least that made sense. 'Keep Going!' He waves. So we continue walking up what is now the highway to a parking lot. There is a big pink polk-a-dot bus waiting there. This seems more likely to be our transport. We all crowd around the bus, waiting for confirmation. We really want to get going so we can arrive in town by dark. The roads are meant to be curvy, dark and dangerous without daylight. 'No, no,' says the tour guide. 'The bus will be here soon. It takes longer because the main road to town is closed and the bus has to go all the way around the island.' Ok, whatever. We have a great view of the bay, and its warm out - things really could be worse. Everyone is still in pretty high spirits, and excited to have finally arrived. Except I really need to go to the bathroom. At the far end of the parking lot, lurking in the shadows is a tiny cement building, moldy and peeling with broken wood doors. I know it's type. Its the toilet. And its going to be gross.
I meet the blonde girl on the path. She is running from the building, (prancing, really) her arms flailing, her nose scrunched, ' Do NOT go in there! Its SSOOOOOOO disgusting,' she screeched, warning me. She obviously has just got off the plane from princess-land. Sanitation is a whole new ball game in South East Asia.

Beside the bus station was a covered garage where a bunch of men were sitting around a table playing cards. Our tour guide went over to chat. About twenty minutes passed. Our tour guide came back and told us that, yes, in fact, the pink polk-a-dot bus had somehow magically morphed into our bus, and that we could load our bags in the bottom and get on. It was only a matter of time, now. We settled ourselves on the bus. Another twenty minutes passed. We started joking that one of the card playing men was our bus driver. Wouldn't that be funny. No, he was probably just grabbing a quick snack, or in the bathroom. The whole bus was into it. We could see over the garage wall from the bus and saw our tour guide intently following the game. 'Hope our driver is winning, at least,' someone joked. More minutes passed. The hilarity was wearing thin. People were becoming increasingly annoyed.

All of the sudden, the blonde girl let out a huge irritated sigh, shot up from her seat and stormed off the bus towards our tour guide. 'Way to go, Blondie!!' An American shouted as she stomped across the parking lot. The whole bus was on their feet, crowded around the windows to watch the show 'Blondie in Action.' She tapped the tour guide on the shoulder. When he turned around, she errupted. We, unfortunately couldn't hear what was said, but her waving arms, made her intentions quite clear. There was some back and forth, the card game paused, everyone stared, she yelled some more, the tour guide shrank back, she turned on her heel, her hair swatting the tour guide in the face and she cat-walked back to the bus, steam billowing from her ears.

We all cheered when she came up the bus stairs. 'What's going on?' an Irish girl inquired. 'Our driver is busy,' she fumed. 'He is playing cards!' The bus was thrown into a frenzy. Even for Vietnam, this was bad. We had been waiting almost an hour for our bus driver finish his card game!? Clearly Blondie's little charade had lit a fire under our driver's irresponsible butt- because within minutes, our bus was rumbling down the highway, driven by a very peeved driver, mind you, across the island. 'Yaaaa for Blondie!' we all cheered.

The island itself was gorgeous. It was very reminiscent of Jurassic Park, and I wouldn't have been surprised in the least if a Pterodactyl were to swoop out from behind one of the karst mountains and land in one of the lush valleys. Our week on Cat Ba flew by. We had a fantastic room with a balcony and great view, for $7/night. We had a favourite restaurant. We rented a motorbike to explore, visited a hidden cave hospital, hiked to the top of CatBa National Park, went kayaking, became known as temporary locals in the market, found a great bakery and strolled along the cliffside path daily. We (or I) bargained for cultured pearls, harvested in Halong Bay, and had a pearl necklace strung up for me right before my very eyes! We met some great people over fresh draught, and spent starry evenings, sitting seaside, comparing hilarious travel tales. It's a rough life, but someone has to do it.

Sadly, the week came to an end and the day came where we had to head back to Hanoi. I was a little nervous, as the company we had came with was less than professional and any number of things could go wrong. By the time we hiked up the hill to the derelict, out of the way guesthouse that the tour company uses as a base, there was already at least three fights in process between reception and travelers and one girl was crying. The cranky tour guide was yelling, demanding people's return tickets, meanwhile everyone had only been given one ticket to use for both directions, and those had been collected by the tour guide on the way to the island. We, ourselves had begged to keep our open ticket, to no avail. We had to ask ten times just to get our disgruntled tour guide just to scratch a hand written note or, 'return ticket' on a scrap piece of paper for us. Good thing these type of shenanigans don't really phase us anymore.

We left about an hour late and there weren't enough seats on the bus so many people were left standing for the forty five minute drive to the pier. The boat ride back through the bay was equally gorgeous, save for the random spots that flotillas of refuse staked their fluid claim on the bay. (Very sad, indeed). With only minor annoyances (like the fact that you have to buy an 'exit ticket' - with the wrong date on it, after having already bought an 'entrance ticket) we arrived at mainland pier. 'Everyone get inside the boat and bring your luggage!' The tour guide called frantically, scampering around the deck, herding people into the tiny inside area and locking the door behind us. We were smushed like sardines, looking around at each other quizzically. 'Why?' a French woman eventually asked. 'Its the law,' replied our tour guide, matter-of-factly. 'Everyone has to be inside when the boat docks because so many tourist boats smash into each other when they try to dock and the government is afraid tourists will tumble over the side and die!' Jonathan and I laughed, picturing some of the top ten worst docking moments we have witnessed in and around Georgian Bay. What a solution! It's hilarious that instead of the Junk Captains being more careful, or, gasp, actually learning how to dock the boat, that instead, everyone has to be locked up, safe inside for the whole starboard-smash docking experience! Its especially fun to watch the docking. No one cares in the least if you run, head on, into their boat. They just watch as the wooden panels creak and crack, and then push you off and on your way. Unless of course, someone else in on their way in and is eyeballing your soon to be vacant real estate at the dock, in which case they violently bump and jive to slither into your spot before you have actually even vacated it. Emphasis on the bump and the violently. Ohhh Bumper Junks!

'Fifteen minutes until the bus comes.' We were told. While we waited a constant string of women tried to sell us over-priced pearls. Didn't they know the pearls were a quarter of the price a quick boat ride away? Their bargaining skills were laughable. '80,000 dong!' They would offer. 'No, ok, then $10!' 80,000 EQUALS $10. It was the same thing. Jeez. Maybe they should have skipped the pearls and invested in a calculator! Two hours later, when the bus actually arrived, it drove us ten minutes down the road and then stopped for lunch.

A few hours into the ride there was a commotion at the front of the bus. 'Get off your $^#&@ phone!' an older Aussie was yelling. Everyone perked up to see what the sudden outbreak was all about. 'We asked him a million times to get off his phone!' shouted the Aussie at the surprised tour guide. 'He's talking on the phone and driving with one hand! Its dangerous! And when he honks (which was about every five seconds) he is driving without any hands at all!!' He was very angry. Those of us in the back of the bus had no idea our bus was being driven sans-hands. It was, in fact, distressing. Although not in the least bit surprising. The tour guide lowered his voice and scolded the Aussie, 'Don't talk to the driver anymore,' the tour guide warned. 'He needs to concentrate on driving.' ha ha! Exactly.

Many more kilometers down the road we ran into a small traffic jam. We were about twenty kilometer outside of Hanoi. Instead of continuing on in the slow moving traffic, our driver instead decides to pull over on the side of the highway. We are told that we can all get off the bus because 'there is a traffic jam and no one knows how long we will be stuck.' We pile out of the bus and rest on the guard rails. Traffic continues to move past us. Buses stuffed with locals stare out the window at us. Obviously the traffic is still moving, as it is not backing up past us. Slowly, but surely, we watch as transport trucks and buses become more and more distant. Everything was on the move- slowly, but surely. If this guy thought this was a traffic jam what would he think of the Hwy 400 on a summer long weekend? The weirdest thing about it all was that, thus far, the Vietnamese had been notorious for exactly the opposite. Not stopping for anything- and that included puppies and small children.

Again, people start to get frustrated. Many people had connecting buses or trains that evening that they were hoping to catch. As we watch the sun set from the side of the highway the likelihood of us sleeping on the guard rails seemed more probable than anyone catching anything that night. 'Lets get going!' 'Traffic is moving!' 'What are you doing?!' 'This is stupid!' And so on, came the complaints. People start trying to negotiate with the tour guide. Where's Blondie when you need her? 'Talk to the driver!' the exasperated tour guide whined, throwing his hands in the air and turning his back on the line of people that have formed to complain. The driver only speaks Vietnamese. There is a heated discussion between the highly pressured tour guide and the obliviously uninvolved in his cell phone, un-interested bus driver. 'What are they saying?' an American asks an Asian woman standing beside me. 'I don't know,' the Asian woman glares, 'I'm Thai, not Vietnamese.' Ohhhhhhh. Ouch. Jonathan and I look at each other and try not to laugh. This whole schmauze is a disaster. More traffic whizzes by. More bus loads of locals stare at the increasingly entertaining, arm flailing, curse throwing road-side show. We consider hitch-hiking. The mob of angry bus-less tourists has now started considering the pros and cons of hijacking the bus and driving themselves back to Hanoi. Someone is actually asking around if anyone knows how to drive a bus. I think the plan was very nearly actualized- until someone realized that the driver was holding the keys hostage. I was myself, starting to get a little scared when the driver grumpily stomped back onto the bus and indicated that the bus would be leaving in approximately 5 seconds- with or without us.

It was dark by the time we rolled into downtown Hanoi. The city is a confusing jumble of streets in the day time, let alone when everything is unrecognizable under florescent lights. 'Will we be dropped off at our hotel when we come back?' I had specifically asked the travel agent when we booked the ticket, foreseeing this issue. 'Of course we can do that,' she had assured us. Well, that was a complete lie. The bus came to an abrupt stop on the side of a random, very busy, Hanoi street. Immediately the driver hopped off and started unloading (ie angrily tossing) our bags from the compartment and onto the disgusting, filthy, sticky, smelly street. By the time we got to the pile, our bags had worked their way to the bottom and were hastily soaking up a nice big puddle of unrecognizable goop. Great. In an effort to save our bags from as much goopiness as possible Jonathan quickly swooped down and yanked my bag out of the puddle. What a good guy. And this is how he he hurt his back. By the time we found our hotel, he couldn't sit, stand, walk, or move. Everything that he tried to do brought him very close to tears. It was an incredibly rough night and the following day was almost as bad. We were out for a little (painful) exercise the next day and a woman carrying one of those very heavy poles weighed down on each end with huge baskets of fruit jokingly tried to put the pole across Jonathan's back-a tourist ploy she probably uses to show everyone just how heavy her baskets are. Jonathan nearly doubled over in pain and the shocked woman, having no idea what she had done, jumped back when I yelled 'NOOO!' Very loudly. It was horrible for Jonathan. The kindness of the Vietnamese people shone through, though. They brought him out a chair to sit, him gave him water and the lady with the fruit felt so bad that she insisted he take a bag of pineapple for free. Thankfully, being the young(ish), fit, champ that he is- we are over-joyed to report that his back is now pretty much healed- although he still insists he needs those nightly back massages...

If this entry seems negative- it's not meant to be. We think this stuff is hilarious. If we just wrote about all the wonderful things we saw, and how beautiful everything is- it just wouldn't be that interesting. Plus, as you may have noticed- my vocabulary is lacking in words to describe such awesome natural beauty and fleeting, yet meaningful interactions with the people we meet. Sure, at the time, some of the travel hassles are annoying, but they are really funny too. And we have learned to (mostly) have a good time with them, and enjoy each caffufel as it comes, and for what it is- without getting (too-Kristen) worked up (even if the enjoyment is mostly afterwards). Vietnam has been one of our favourite stops, and, lets face it, without all these travel shenanigans- what would we have to blog about?

P.S - Jonathan reached into his coat pocket the other day-and, as is often the case on those very lucky days when you put your coat on for the first time in a while, found a crumpled up bill. It was a 50,000 note. The funny thing is, we can't for the life of us, remember what kind of currency it is. Or therefore, how much it would be worth. Too bad it isn't dollars. That's the only thing we are sure it's not. It doesn't have any obvious indicators on it. Who finds 50,000 of some currency and doesn't know where its from? ha ha Who 'forgets' they have a 50,000 note in their pocket? Odds are, its worth less than $10- but we can dream, can't we?

P.P.S - Apparently 'The Pirates who don't do anything' are a funny Veggie Tales song? This is according to the self proclaimed 'Veggie Tales Expert' Mr. Jonathan Mooney. I don't get it either. (J: I only mentioned Veggie Tales and now I'm apparently a self proclaimed expert)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Why did the chicken cross the road?

If said chicken had been in Hanoi, the age old question may have never come to be. Because there would be no chicken whose intentions we could ponder for decades. He would never have made it across that road. He wouldn't have even made it across the sidewalk. He would have died. Smoked by a kamikaze on a motorbike. Although, I guess perhaps, the dear chicken was the real kamikaze. Road kill. Smushed. Smashed. Splattered. Shushed. Feathers would have been flying everywhere- but no one would have even fingered their brakes. They did honk a warning, after all. Chicken a-la roadside- he would have been in a Vietnamese noodle soup before anyone had even noticed that the poor fella had even attempted crossing that darn road.

Crossing the street without dying ranks high on the list of something that we take for granted back home. Cars very rarely in Canada speed up when they see you, at least. There aren't many cars, but what they lack in over-sized vehicles they make up for, tenfold, in motorbikes. Motorbikes with loud, constant, infuriating honking. Asia is loud, no question, but Hanoi is in a league of it's own. Its not like in Bali when people gave a friendly honk to let you know that they were behind you. No. These scooters honk, because, like it or not, they have plans to run you down. They don't slow down, change direction, swerve or wait for you to get out of the way. They honk because they want YOU to get out of their way. It doesn't matter who was there first, which direction you are going, whether the light is red, green, purple or blue, or that the little green walkie guy is flashing, lying to you, saying that it is now your turn to cross. It is never your turn to cross, so unless you are ok with spending your entire day on one side of the street- and some people are so afraid to cross the road that they do- you need to take matters into your own hands.

Although, really, you might as well just cross the road, because you're not even safe on the sidewalk. If for some reason the sidewalk happens to be free of parked motorbikes, tables and chairs of makeshift restaurants, people washing their clothes and inconveniently placed trees - then really all that means is that it is another place to drive. They shouldn't even be able to call it a sidewalk. Maybe if they took the word 'walk' out, as that implies that such an activity is possible- which it's not. 'Sideroad' would be more accurate. Because, why waste your time swerving through the myriad of motorbikes on the actual 'road' when its totally a-ok to forcefully and loudly part the sea of pedestrians huddling (or, in the tourists case, quivering) on the conveniently accessible 'side-road.'

So, after many near-fatal attempts- here is the secret: just go. First- look in all four directions- don't make the silly mistake of thinking that vehicles could only possibly come from your right or left. You're only looking for a clear space for your first step. Make sure you are mentally prepared though, for that first step- because once you make the decision, there's no turning back- there's already a motorbike behind you. Keep your head up, look straight forward and step again. Don't speed up- the motorbike crossing in front of you won't expect it- and you will get hit. Don't slow down- the bikes coming from down the street will get confused- and you will get hit. DO NOT, whatever you do, stop. No one will know what to do- and they will all hit you. Just walk. It's your safest bet- you will almost never get hit. When all else fails, cuddle up with a group of locals (personal space is a non-issue here-get as close as you can -link arms even- they will probably love it and take your photo - it's a bonding experience- there's safety in numbers-united we stand...) Anyways, couples with young babies are a good bet, as are the elderly, as I'm sure they almost almost never get hit. Just a suggestion.

Having had some spare time- we have done some experimenting with the art of street crossing. Eye contact, for example. Does direct eye contact make your fast approaching assailant recognize you as a fellow human being and mercifully take more effort to avoid you? Or does the eye contact simply allow them to lock onto their target like a homing missile? Will they speed up? Is it a safe idea to distract people by looking at them while they are (hopefully) concentrating on avoiding smashing you into smithereens? Experiment result: Inconclusive- everyone was going too fast to be certain that we ever established eye contact.

The good news: No one was (badly) harmed in the creation of this entry.

Conclusion: Vietnam = one big horn-y country!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Yak-ity Yak! We are Back!

A huge thanks to Laura for posting our last few entries to the blog. We, however, have regained access to our blog and our photostream! Yippee! And that is in no small thanks to Joel and Sonia, the most amazing couple in all the USA.

Feel free to continue commenting again and we will be posting more photos in our photostream soon.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Never a Dull Moment in Ninh Binh

Ninh Binh is a small city about 90km south-east of Hanoi. It's sheer
beauty deserves it's own entry. The city itself is nothing to write
home about. But once we peddled our rented bicycles a mere five
minutes down the main street we were greeted by endless fields of
emerald rice fields, towering karst mountains and bathing water
buffalo. Forays down smaller dirt roads led us to some of the most
magical scenery we have seen on the trip thus far. People have built
their tiny houses right into the bedrock and live in tiny niches at
the bottom of the magnificent mountains. Small carved out wooden boats
float (mostly) amidst lush pond vegetation and rivers cut through
narrow gorges and into atmospheric caves.

On the second afternoon of biking we got caught in a bit of a downpour
and found ourselves peddling through a nice, thick layer of mud. We
just spotted a restaurant to hide in when Jonathan's bike became very
hard to pedal. We made it to the restaurant and his bike was
immediately dragged away by the owner and no less than three friends.
'Flat!' they pointed to the tire. And, so it was. Perfect timing,
really, if we were going to get a flat anywhere. Right where a NASCAR
crew is standing by to patch it up. By the time we had finished lunch
our tire was all patched up (the patch matched perfectly the five
other ones on the tire), the rain had stopped and we were ready to
move on. Grand total for tire work of the team? $1. I love Vietnam.

We pedaled to Tam Coc, one of the most touristy sights for a trip down
the picturesque river. For $7 total, including admission, you get into
your very own private row boat and rower for an hour and a half
adventure down the winding river and through three caves. The
acrobatic rowers use both their hands and feet to row the boat, which
makes for half the fun. We happened to be there on a Saturday and the
river was lined with boats full of Vietnamese school children. Despite
the absolutely stunning scenery, the kids were all more interested in
waving frantically at us, shouting greetings, making faces and taking
our picture. And we thought the river was the tourist attraction. It's
probably just our uncanny resemblance to a couple famous, incredibly
attractive movie-stars. Right.

The other outing we opted for in Ninh Binh was a trip to the National
Park Cuc Phoung, which is about 45km out of the city. Our hotel was
more than happy to arrange two motorbikes and drivers to escort us.
The air was so wonderful and fresh in the park, and the jungle/forest
was dense and very, very green. The park is one of Vietnam's most
important natural areas. Ho Chi Minh himself took time off from the
war to declare the area a National Park. The ride itself, despite the
very sore motorbike bottom, was wonderful. We stopped at a pineapple
plantation, and a few other fantastic view points before making it to
the park's entrance. There, we visited monkey and turtle
rehabilitation centres. The animal situation is incredibly sad here.
There were originally a plethora of species of primates in Vietnam but
illegal hunting has left many populations depleted and very near
extinction. People just don't understand, or simply don't care that
hunting the monkeys will have long term effects. The turtles, on the
other hand, are mostly hunted for parts that are used in Chinese
medicine. The illegal export/import of animal parts from Vietnam to
China is a massive problem that it complicated by wide spread
corruption. And we thought the CITES training was boring. This stuff
is fascinating (and infuriating)- in a horrible, brutal way. The idea
behind the medicines themselves is perhaps even more disturbing, as
they aren't based in any sort of fact whatsoever (in my opinion). For
example, people believe that drinking turtle blood will make them live
longer, just because turtles have long lives- so they kill countless
turtles! Its so bad that even common pond turtles are rare!

We drove another 20km into the park, stopping so my driver could yank
a weird looking plant/flower/thing from a tree for me, for no
particular reason. He didn't even know what it was- all he knew is
that he wanted me to have it. Thanks... I think.

We visited a cave where remains of a person from 5000BC were found and
went on a beautiful (but steep) hike to a one thousand year old tree.
Now that's ancient- like you, Dad.

The ride back provided even more unbelievable scenery. Seriously surreal.

Our vote: Ninh binh- Worth the overnight bus ride.

P.S. We are now also having problems with logging into our current flickr account with our google log-in. Sooooo we now have this temporary Flickr account that we will post our latest China pics in until we figure out all these technical issues. Hopefully its not too confusing.

Temporary Flickr Account :

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Hello! Give Me Money!

Just a quick prelude: We have arrived safely in China and are loving it. One drawback of being here, though, is the whole Great Firewall thing. Free speech is far from a reality here. The PRC's internet censorship is notorious. As an example the Wikipedia articles Internet Censorship in China and The Dalai Lama "mysteriously" have a "Problem Loading Page" here in China. Blogs are blacked out here, too. This means that until we leave China we can't check our blog or even update because there is the ubiquitous "Problem Loading Page" message when we try to navigate to our blog. Don't worry, though! Laura has come to the rescue! We will be emailing our blog texts to her and she kindly volunteered to post them for us. So the blogs will be text-only until we leave China, but we will regularly be uploading photos to our Photostream, which you can click on on the right side of our blog. Hope this works for you. And a huge thanks to Laura!


We have been greeted with a number of interesting salutations over the past seven months or so. Hello! Give me money! is one of our favourites, shouted by an arm-less, leg-less man who lived on the beachside boulevard in NhaTrang, Vietnam; and, despite his lack of limbs (and wheelchair) still managed to chase us down the path demanding a contribution.

You can acquire all sorts of crazy things here in Asia, without even venturing into a shop! The store comes to you... on legs or bicycle. For example, lets say you are sitting on the beach and your tummy starts to feel a bit rumbly, no need to worry! Within five minutes a lady selling bananas, mangos, pineapple and watermelon will surely stop by and chop you up a fruit salad right before your eyes. There are dried fruit chips, regular chips, full steamed crabs, ice cream, various varieties of meat on a stick, baguettes, candy, pop, water and beer. All without having to budge your burnt bottom from the beach towel. But let's say you are more in the market for a book, cigarettes, postcards, toys, a broom or a rack of clothing, no worries, all those goodies are readily available and equally as mobile. Just sit back and wait for your purchases to come to you!

We were walking along the boulevard in Phnom Penh one night when a teenage boy ran up to us with a bird cage. 'Buy a bird?' he asked, motioning to the three tiny sparrows that had, no doubt, been enjoying freedom not so very long ago. From what we read, in Buddhism paying for one of these birds to be released would be a popular way to buy yourself some good favour in your next life. It is called buying merit. The fact that these birds were free before being captured is of no consequence. 'No, thanks,' we said. He was persistent. 'Come on! Buy a bird!' he demanded. Smiling goes a long way. 'No, thanks. I don't need a bird. What would I do with a bird?' I laughed, feigning innocence. He smiled and looked confused as though he was actually pondering the question. When he couldn't come up with a reasonable answer he simply tried his luck one last time. 'Awww, buy a bird!' We started to walk away chuckling. He reached forward and touched my arm to get my attention. 'Ok, how about a turtle then?'

Another funny incident occurred while we were relaxing on the beach in NhaTrang. One of the ladies from the constant stream of fruit sellers stopped behind us and knelt down in the shade giving her back a break from the heavy load of fruit she was carting around. Jonathan was lying on his side, with his back to the fruit lady. She crawled up behind us and knelt behind Jonathan. She looked around. She made some noises to get our attention. When she wasn't getting the results that she had been hoping for, she stepped her game up a knotch. She slapped Jonathan on the butt. It was shocking enough to be hilarious. Most vendors wait for you to shake your head and then move on pretty quickly. Not this lady. She had on her game face. After the bum tap she declared 'You want mango!!' It wasn't so much a question as a command. We were laughing. At least this was something different. 'No, thanks,' Jonathan answered. 'You buy mango from me, or I kill you!' was her next line. It would have been creepy and maybe a little worrying if she didn't follow her death threat up with a song: "Mango! Banana! Pineapple! Mango! Banana! Pineapple!' She started to dance. But this song required back up dancers as well so she grabbed Jonathan's shoulders and started shaking him around to the beat of her song. It was so entertaining that I caught myself humming along. 'YAAA Mango! Banana! Pineapple!' What a tune. After the musical interlude she forgot all about her fruity focus and turned her attention to Jonathan's beard. 'Ohhhhh!' she hummed as she ran her fingers through his excessively large, red, facial hair, fluffing it up until it covered practically his whole face, humming to herself the whole time. Finally satisfied with all her hard work she suddenly shot up to her feet. 'Ok! See you later!' she sang, waving goodbye. Seriously, this happened.

Most entertaining, for me at least, are the numerous roadside barbers who will practically bulldoze anything, and anyone that poses an obstacle between themselves and the werewolf (or walking dollar sign) they see walking beside me. Their eyes bulge when they see all the excess hair they could chop off and later form into a small stuffed dog for their kids to play with. Maybe they charge per strand? 'Cut! Shave!!' they call enthusiastically as they trip over their barber seats trying to get Jonathan's attention. They run out on to the street wielding scissors in one hand and a rusty metal razor in the other. Jonathan shakes his head gravely, dashing their hopes of snipping. 'Good luck with that one. I'm with you!' I shake my head and warn them that they are wasting their time chasing us down the street. But, needless to say, chase gives way. '(Because) how can it be? How does this hairy beast not want a little snipity snip under my experienced snippity snip snippers?' They must wonder. The only possible reason that this man looks like this must be because he has been somewhere deep in the jungle for a very long time. Or, he just really likes to irritate his wife...

Not everything you can get on the street costs money though, we discovered. We were walking down the sidewalk along a park in Saigon and noticed a big purple truck advertising a fancy kind of toilet paper. There were two employees on the sidewalk and they appeared to be handing out full roles of toilet paper to passers-bys, mostly foreigners. This was super exciting! Free, soft, fancy toilet paper! What a luxury! If you are lucky enough for your hotel to include toilet paper it is of the tissue paper variety and not luxuriously Cottonelle (I think it is actually Cashmere now) in any way. Plus, as I've mentioned before, carrying around your own supply of toilet paper is a must as there is a 70/30 shot that there won't be any in any given bathroom. 70% of the time being that there is none. Unlike all the other times when we maneuver our way to the other side of the road to avoid persistent street vendors, we made a beeline to the lovely people handing out the free toilet paper. What a strange, yet wonderful thing to be handing out on the street! The smiley employees happily handed us each our very own ginormous, plush roll! Woohoo! As I was caressing my roll with enthusiasm I happened to notice that everyone sitting on the benches on the edge of the park was giggling at us. Ok, yes, we were fondling our toilet paper. But then I thought, what if we were on the Vietnamese version of 'Just for Laughs' or 'Candid Camera?' Ha! They would be having a hoot. Watching us crazy foreigners go all googly eyed over a roll of toilet paper would be great entertainment... So everyone stay tuned to their favorite Vietnamese channel and keep an eye out for us!

Siem Reap, Cambodia has an absolutely fantastic night market. I don't really know exactly what sets it apart from all the other night markets in all the other cities, but I absolutely loved how quaint and colourful it was. The vendors were friendly, not pushy and it just had a fantastic energy. The Cambodian silk scarves were irresistible and I tried on more than a few simple cotton dresses. Since we were in Siem Reap for so long, volunteering, we had the luxury of frequenting the night market. Foot massages and back massages were $2 for twenty minutes and $3/hour. Its impossible to pass up, really. It would be bad for your health. My favourite thing to do was set Jonathan up with an hour massage and then skip off into the night market to stroke silk scarves and practice my bargaining skills. Anyways, the funny thing about the markets were the dress sellers. Pretty much all Cambodian women are tiny, but their dresses were made for tourists. Therefore, all the dresses were the 'one size fits most' variety with a scrunchy elastic back that expanded significantly, if need be. A vendor would notice me eyeballing one of their dresses and rush over. 'We have your size!' they would exclaim excitedly as they plucked down one of the dresses and proceeded to demonstrate just how wide the elastic on the back could be stretched. Jonathan's favourite pastime, (and the main reason he usually ended up being deposited in massage daycare before I went shopping) was to ask poor, hopeful dress sellers, 'And what size is that?' 'Big size! Good for you! It will even fit you!' They would declare proudly and he would laugh and laugh and I would glare at him. Mostly its funny because none of the ladies realize how unappreciated this whole exchange would be back home. Just like how the first three things every person you meet on the streets asks unabashedly are 'How old are you? Are you married? and Why don't you have children yet?' (In disbelief, with the shake of their heads- I mean REALLY, you've been married TWO years!!) One of the more savvy dress ladies, when asked by Jonathan what size it was that she had for me, smiled knowingly... 'Ummm.. Medium?'

Anyone who has been on Angkor Wat can tell you about the absolute onslaught of vendors that going into attack mode the second your tuk tuk slows down in front of a temple. It must be like what being a movie star is like. The tuk tuk, with absolutely no exaggeration, is surrounded by a crowd of at least twenty vendors, adults and children alike, pushing scarves, books, water, trinkets, bracelets and a variety of other tacky souvenirs and musical instruments.

Its sad to see the children pushing goods for a living. They really have their stories down to an art though. Apparently word has gotten out that foreigners want children to get an education. So, if its the morning and you ask them why they aren't in school they say that they go in the afternoon and then in the afternoon, its visa versa. Mothers with stalls in temples send their tiny two year old children out to wander the ancient, tourist filled corridors armed with an armful of bracelets to sell. The older children are witty and well informed. First, they ask you where you are from. Once you answer, you're doomed. Eventually we started telling everyone that we were from 'Niagara.' It worked well because not only had no one heard of it, but the response threw them so off that we had a chance to sneak off and actually enjoy the temples while they stood there thinking what to say next. Their whole plan blown. 'Canada,' I answered a few times. 'Ohhh Canada,' they will say, 'Very beautiful! Capital is Ottawa. Big cities are Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto! You have a population of ....'and their speal goes on. It's quite impressive. So much so that you feel compelled to buy whatever it is that they have in their little baskets. They did, after all, just spend the last five minutes spewing off random Canadian facts. You didn't even have to break your stride, they just scurried along side of you this whole time. Sometimes we would just have conversations with the kids for fun. One time a girl, about ten years old, followed me all the way down a path to the lake. 'You can come, but I'm not going to buy anything,' I told her. We got to the lookout and this weird looking flying contraption flew by. I interrupted her Canadian history lesson. 'What's that?' I asked. She glanced up quickly, not wanting to get distracted from her lecture. 'Oh, that's a flying motorbike. Anyways...' without a blink of an eye. A flying motorbike?! I burst out laughing. A flying motorbike? I watched the contraption pass by. It did sort of look exactly like a flying motorbike... I laughed all the way back to the temple. It was an Ultralite Jonathan told me later. Well that's boring! I like the flying motorbike response much better. 'Ok, now you need cold water!' the girl declared as we neared her mother's stall. 'No, thanks,' I replied for the millionth time. 'Ok, maybe when you come back (from inside the temple). It's ok if you change your mind!' She shouted at our backs. haha

p.s: Happy Birthday, Marta!!

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Running Commentary

Usually we try to avoid posts like this, because we can't imagine that a play by play of our lives can be that exciting for you guys, but we are so behind on the blog, I thought I'd give you the run down of our last month or so.

We left Siem Reap for Phnom Penh, which was about a six hour, uneventful bus ride. We ended up on a local bus and were reminded quickly how much Cambodians like their food. We stopped at a restaurant for a full on breakfast about half an hour in, and then, because how could we possibly miss lunch, we stopped again, at precisely noon at another restaurant so everyone could have a full lunch!

We finally arrived and were greeted by about twenty tuk tuks staking out the exit and running up and down the side of the bus trying to get our attention. 'Hello! Hello! You want tuk tuk!!' It wasn't a question. As we were the only English speakers on the bus we knew that this overwhelming welcome was directed at us. Its pretty much constant harassment until you finally get into a tuk tuk. Then, of course, they don't want to take you to the guest house you ask them to, because they won't get commission unless they bring you to their guest house. After a significant amount of further negotiation we ended up on the correct street. Bonus. When the whole schmaouze is taken in stride, its all really more entertaining than frustrating. If only I could remember that tidbit at the time! Phonm Penh was ok. We had a chance meeting with this cute, young British couple that we had met in Lao, Emily and Ben. It was nice to see them and they passed along to us a 'travel book of questions' that had been started by an American last year and had been passed from traveler to traveler since then. The idea is that with a world of questions, it would be interesting to share some answers. Every person would answer the question posed to them in the book by the travellers before, they would then write their own question and pass the book along. The book started in India and has so far traveled to Nepal, Kenya, Cambodia and Vietnam. It has a ways to go before the book will be full and sent back to it's creator, but we thought it was a fun idea and an intriguing read.

Phomn Penh has a nice wide boulevard along the Mekong to walk along where groups of people gather in the evenings for entertaining dance classes and good food. AND we found a non-corrupt post office where a nice lady sold us all thirty nine stamps we need for your postcards at (gasp) the actual price of the stamp! Savings = $9!!

Mostly, we needed a Vietnamese visa, which our guesthouse was more than happy to arrange for us.

We boarded the bus to Saigon and the ticket guy wanted our passports. He wasn't able to explain why he needed them, and it seemed like a stupid idea. Everyone else handed their passports over without argument. Finally someone explained in broken English that they needed our passports to fill out paperwork before we cossed the border, and we would get them back as soon as the paperwork was done. It seemed weird, but we reluctantly handed them over. We didn't get them back, immediately, of course, even though I asked about every ten minutes, which was a lot considering it took us about four hours to get to the Vietnamese border. We stopped for lunch on the Cambodian side of the border and someone on a motorbike scooted our passports away. It was annoying. By this point, our driver and ticket checker hated me. Finally, when we got to the Vietnamese border, the officer had all our passports and was calling our names to come and collect them, having already been cleared. All was well.

The first people we met in Vietnam when we got off the bus in Saigon, were very helpful, giving us directions, helping us find an ATM and negotiating a taxi for us. We were surprised after all the horror stories we had heard from other travellers about Vietnam. Saigon is a big Vietnamese city and, not being city people ourselves, we mostly just wanted to arrange a ticket north. I couldn't resist stopping in at the market though and being pulled around (literally) from stall to stall to check out the offerings. The tourist thing to do in Vietnam is to buy an open bus ticket from Saigon to Hanoi, picking which cities you want to stop in. It is ridiculously cheap, which we would find out was reflected in the complete lack of comfort. The buses are all 'sleeper buses,' a phenomenon that we had not yet experienced in Asia. We generally prefer to travel during the day when we, and our driver can fully appreciate the hairpin turns and pot-holed roads in the light of day. Sleeper buses have three rows. One on each side and one down the middle, and two high. The back of the bus is sometimes more of a free-for-all, lined side to side with seats. About that personal space... each 'seat' is a teeny weeny, partially reclining bed that would make Kate Moss feel squashed. The buses are in various stages of disrepair and disgustingness. You are given a flee infested pillow and stinky blanket, which are best used for shoving into the gaping holes of the seats as a thin barrier between your back and protruding metal structure of the seat. Anyways. $37 and we have a ticket from Saigon to Hanoi, covering about 900km, stopping in Mui Ne, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hue and Nimh Binh. Vietnam, here we come!

First stop, Mui Ne. Mui Ne is all about the beach. The beach is long, white, beautiful and sweltering. All the shade is owned by upper class hotels and restaurants that line the beach and display prices in US dollars - never a good sign. We did find one fantastically situated restaurant on stilts over the water at the far end of the beach. It was cheap and the view was fantastic. Of course, the food took about an hour to arrive (no exaggeration) and generally you would only actually end up getting about two thirds of what you ordered and have to re-order the missing meal parts about twice. Not that we were in a rush to go anywhere. I could have sat there in the cool ocean breeze all day. Sometimes we did.

Mui Ne is very popular with windsurfers and kite boarders. There was a consistent breeze and huge waves, and they provided great entertainment, that and watching paste-y tourists fry like fish on a barbecue. Mui Ne's other attraction is its nearby sand dunes. We took a jeep tour one day out to a dramatically picturesque stream of unknown importance, white sand dunes for sleddding, and then to watch the setting sun set ablaze the glowing red sand dunes. The wind was whipping around in a fury the afternoon that we arrived at the dunes. Every tiny grain of sand felt like pins on our skin as we tredged (some more willingly than others) to the summit equipped with a thin, slippery, sheet sled. We were sharing one, because it would be crazy to waste a whole extra dollar to rent two... I, for one, was super excited. I declared to Jonathan that I was going to claim the front and he could sit behind me. Judging by the amount of time and effort it took to get to the top of this dune it was very unlikely that we were going to make the ascent again. We had one shot to make it the most fun sand dune sledding experience of our lives! My sledding partner was significantly less enthusiastic. The sled was lacking in space. We didn't really manage to fit our full selves on the sled, which was probably mistake #1. Then there was the dilemma of where to hide our bags from the evil flying sand, how to actually stay on the sled and how to make it 'go.' Safe to say there were multiple other 'mistakes' over the following thirty seconds, as we catapulted (or rolled, depending on your angle) down the steep dune. Its hard to say how it all really went down, but what I do know is that in the end, we were at the bottom of the dune with sand in more places than I ever, EVER thought imaginable. Jonathan, I don't think, particularly didn't enjoy the flavour of this Vietnamese sand. 'Wasn't that fun!!?' I asked, after spitting out my mouthful of sand and began plotting how we could get back to the top. Apparently not.

Back on the bus we headed north again to another beach town called Nha Trang. Nha Trang was actually a full fledged city compared to small town Mui Ne. Nha Trang has the whole beach side city down to an art, however. The beach was six kilometers of soft, white sand, coconut palms and pounding waves. They had sea-doos for rent, speedboats and beach chairs. The most amazing thing about NhaTrang was the abundance of palm trees planted along the edge of the beach that offered fantastic, free shade. We would start our morning hiding in the tiny amount of shade under a coconut palm, but as the hours wore on, the shade kept increasing it's coverage and we followed it closer and closer to the water. By four in the afternoon the whole beach was in the glorious shade and the locals came out to frolic in the water while the sun-seeking tourists packed up their red bodies and moved on. In Nha Trang everything you could possibly need for a comfortable day on the beach (and much much more) was delivered to you by a constant stream of ladies, who wore full pants, sweatshirts, hats, scarves and gloves and carried a pole over their shoulders on which two baskets of whatever goods they were peddling. When it finally stopped being annoying, it became very entertaining, but more on that later. We really enjoyed Nha Trang and being able to spend the entire day on the beach, in the shade. Plus, they made some good chai tea!

The dreaded evening came when we had to board our first sleeper bus, to actually sleep overnight. Ahhh! The bus was over an hour late and we were beginning to wonder/hope it wouldn't show up at all and we could put the ordeal off until tomorrow. It came though. We were two of the last people to get on. We ended up at the back of the bus. To our amazement the windows at the back of the bus were the only ones that opened! Score! At least now, when we woke up in the middle of the night, mid air as result of a massive pothole or ninety degree turn we would have the benefit of fresh air as opposed to the 'air conditioning' aka stale smelly air that barely leaked from the air holes.

It was a gross, sleepless night, but we arrived safely in Hoi An, the old UNESCO world heritage village. Conveniently, the bus dropped us off right in front of a reasonably priced hotel where we scored the perfect room with a balcony! It would be hard not to fall in love with Hoi An. The buildings in the old quarter are old, peeling and colourful. Shops are brimming with colourful clothing, scarves, books and lanterns. Fishing boats plow the river, restaurants have picturesque views, there is a lively market, delicious food and, get ready, 19 cent draft beers! Sure, its super touristy, but for really good reason. Its fantastic. Every other shop is a tailor who wants to make you a silk suit, dress, skirt, shirt or coat tailored to fit you perfectly. For very, very cheap. Its all undeniably pretty and tempting. Its the perfect town for wandering.
We took a day excursion to the My Son ruins, which were interesting and set in a beautiful lush jungle, but paled in comparison to Angkor. The best part about our excursion were the two London-ers we met. Liz and Libby were on a two week vacation and were super friendly and interesting. Plus, I got to dream shop through them as they took advantage of the super deals on silk dresses and jewelery. We ate some fantastic food together and enjoyed great conversation. With any luck we will rendezvous again when we are in London in December!

Another important day came and went in Hoi An with Jonathan's Birthday. We enrolled in a cooking class at the Morning Glory restaurant. We had eaten the best Vietnamese food thus far at the restaurant and figured the cooking class would be a good bet. The morning started with a tour of the local market. It was fascinating to learn about all the interesting fruits and veggies, a little traumatizing seeing various animal parts and more than a lttle gross wading through fish guts, but it all added to the cooking adventure. Back at the restaurant we cooked up the most delicious Vietnamese food. My favourite was, by far, the fresh spring rolls overflowing with the fresh herbs and Jonathan really enjoyed a local specialty, the savoury Hoi An pancake. After a little afternoon siesta we set out in the evening for drinks at an atmospheric riverside restaurant. Oh! And the best thing about Hoi An, I almost forgot, are the hundreds of colourful, silk Chinese lanterns that are lit every night all over town! The evenings are absolutely beautiful with everything glowing in the soft light of the lanterns. Its a splendid setting for any evening, let alone a birthday celebration! Not willing to let my darling husband celebrate his 29th without official birthday cake, I took him to a western style cafe that made fresh ice cream and had a glass display of the most delicious looking, sweet, chocolate-ly, rich cakes we had seen in eons. It was his birthday, after all! This was all for him. Jonathan chose a cheesecake and I settled (after much deliberation) on a Chocolate double cream cake. After singing Happy Birthday we devoured our very yummy cakes in a very small amount of time. YUM! Yaa for Birthdays!

The morning after the celebration we left Hoi An on a three hour late bus for Hue, a city not so very far away. Our plan was to spend the day in Hue and then catch our last night bus north that evening towards Hanoi, but get off in Ninh Binh a smaller city about 9okm south of the Capital. We ended up on a seemingly random sleeper bus leaving from a parking lot that a taxi took us to. There was a large group of people at the travel agent waiting for the bus to Hanoi, but we were singled out to get in a taxi and go to this other bus. It was strange, but not alarmingly so for Asia. I hopped on the bus to snag the back seats by the window that opened while Jonathan took our bags to be stored beneath the bus. 'He only let me put one bag under the bus, Jonathan said when we got on. We were tight enough on space as it was without having to share our crib size bed with a bag too. I decided that that was stupid. We have small bags, compared to the houses that most travellers cart around, surely they could squeeze our tiny bag under the bus. I carried the bag outside and was putting it under the bus on top of our other bag when the luggage packer started having a little fit. People pay busses to transport packages, mostly of the massive variety to cities they pass on route. Mr Cranky wanted more room for the multitude of boxes he was trying to jam into the compartments. 'Ninh Binh' I said, glaring at him and pointing to our bags as I secured them both in place. He threw his hands in the air and stormed off to his buddies to complain. As I got back on the bus I began to wonder if I had made a mistake. Would our bags go missing in retaliation? Would they be delivered to some random roadside stop along with one other oddly shaped packages rolled in cardboard? I was pretty concerned. I hung my head out the window and watched for the rest of the lengthy packing process. Our bags didn't come flying off in a fit of rage, which I considered it a good sign.

The bus stopped in the middle of the night for a break at a restaurant. Because who isn't hungry for a meal at 1 am? I got off to go to the washroom. Getting off the bus is quite the ordeal. I was on the top bunk, so first, after locating my sandals, which have to be taken off before boarding the bus and stored in a plastic bag, and some toilet paper (a complete take-along necessity) I climbed down from my bunk being careful to place my foot in the tiny space beside the person below me's face, as opposed to on top of it. This is especially hard when one is half asleep. Then, in the barely one foot wide aisle I had to negotiate my way around all the extra people that the bus has picked up enroute who are now sleeping on the floor in the aisles. Then, I need to remember to hold my breath and plug my nose while passing the on-board bathroom, not trip over people's plastic bags full of luggage, their children or their limbs hanging from the beds I pass. Finally at the front of the bus I struggle to put my sandals on, while holding my toilet paper between my teeth. Once off the bus, of course, there is a line for a dirty, smelly, toilet paper-less squat toilet. When its finally my turn, the door doesn't really close and I have disturbed all the night's creepy crawlers banging around in the dark trying to hold the door shut, my pants off the floor and attempting to get the least amount of pee on my pants as physically possible. Its a good time. My eyes are still half closed as I make my way past all the cheery, laughing, eating Vietnamese people back to the bus. No joke, I am two feet from the door of the bus when it slides shut with a decisive clunk. I am very, very annoyed by this point. A bunch of guys start laughing at my predicament. I whirl around and make it very obvious that I am not impressed. The driver is no where to be seen. The door won't budge open. There's no handle. I consider kicking it, the trick always seems to work with vending machines in the movies, but I decide against it. I can't be bothered. I stumble back into the restaurant and sit on one of the child size chairs at a pint size table, cross my arms and glare at the world. After a five course meal and a package of cigarettes and a half hour for his stomach to settle, the driver finally opens the bus door. I complete the same obstacle course in reverse and find Jonathan practically snoring in his little coffin-bed. 'What took you so long?' he mumbles. And so is the adventure of peeing on a night bus.

By some miracle, ourselves and our bags are thrown off the bus in Ninh Binh town. We are all a bit dirty, smushed and smelly, but we've made it! Success! We follow the lone guest house owner who has arisen at this ridiculous hour to wait at the bus stop for lost, exhausted travellers like us who are willing to pay just about anything for a bed that isn't on wheels back to his guesthouse and collapse in our new non-moving room.
Ninh Binh was going to be spectacular... later that afternoon...

P.S Say a prayer for dear OLD Jonathan who barely made it two weeks into his 29th year before pulling a muscle in his back. The first day he could barely walk, or get out of bed, but thankfully, he is doing much, much better everyday. The sooner he is back to his good, old, agile(?) self, the better!