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!

1 comment:

Parentals said...

Reading through your adventures, thankfully, the awesome things you are seeing and doing seem to outweigh the challenges of travel.
Praying for your safety and health (including your back Jon).