Gusts and Gales Sweep Through a Hidden Vietnam

It was as if we had suddenly stepped into an entirely different world. A wild world that threatened great unknown, but also promised treasures not yet dreamed of… if you would only venture on to explore it.

We were on a bus traveling down a roughly paved road from Ho Chi Minh City to Mui Ne. The typical roadside shacks and garages, interspersed with palms and rice paddies, trailed along with us. As is customary when traveling by bus in SE Asia, we stopped at a restaurant designated especially for tourists. The restaurant boasted plastic picnic tables, the luxury of somewhat clean bathrooms with no plumbing, and mediocre food at best. Even though the food looked unimpressive, I was hungry so I ordered vegetable coconut curry with plain white rice. In Thailand and Cambodia, even the least of curries can offer an appeasing satisfaction and flavor. But the least of Vietnamese curries simply don’t.

Just after I ordered, Massimo (the Italian I was traveling with) came over and urged, “Laura come see this. You’ll love it. Bring your camera.” The Vietnamese man who took my order nodded a wordless reassurance that he would bring my order out when I came back, so I grabbed my camera and followed Massimo down a gravel trail that led away from the back of the restaurant. At first, I could only see the odd mixture of palms, ferns and pines, further down the trail, lining my horizon. But, as I drew closer, I glimpsed a vast lake with sunlight dancing along the surface and a stunning fortress of mountains encircling it. I gasped, looked at Massimo flashing him a “You were so right!” grin and ran off ahead to take in the hidden treasure. Emerging through the foliage, I saw a handful of boats beached on the shore in front of me. A few local villagers were on the water: a browned elderly couple wrinkled with time, a young woman drawing in yards of fishing line in a waterlogged boat…

I stopped to take it all in… this unexpected and spectacular landscape. And JUST as I inhaled my pleasure with a long, heavy breath, a sudden onslaught of forceful, gusting winds swept down from the heavens. In an instant, the sun went into hiding behind a veil of darkening clouds, white mists filled the valleys and jagged mountain ridges. Gales fell like drapes along the water. It was as if, suddenly, there was some unseen presence swirling among us. Mighty and untamed, but soothing and enlivening all at once. Our hair whipped around our faces with frenzied fury, but none of us, foreigner nor local, felt alarmed. Instead, we felt filled with gladness, as evident through the smiles we couldn’t help but flash at one another.

And that’s when I made these two pictures…

Hauling Out

As I headed north, I seemed to catch up to the rainy, gray weather that I thought had disappeared. My symptoms also seemed to re-emerge in the 12-hour bus journey. When I finally reached Hanoi, I discovered it was also frightfully colder. A tropical storm from the south carried a nippy chill with it as it moved over northern Vietnam. I had wanted to stay in Hanoi and schedule tours to visit the renowned Halong Bay and the lesser traveled, but still mapped out landscapes of Ninh Binh near by. Halong Bay has the same stunning limestone crags jutting up into the heavens as those outside Dong Hoi, except these jutted from the sea instead of from rice paddies dotting a winding river. I think Ninh Binh is pretty similar to what I saw outside Dong Hoi, but without the massive cave system. Soooo… I opted out. Both were similar to what I had already seen, but were MUCH more touristy.

I didn’t have the proper clothing for the nippy weather. I had spent nearly a month in Vietnam. I had experienced unforgettable magic a number of times. So, I decided to book a bus to warmer temps in neighboring Laos. The bus was departing the evening of the same day that I had arrived. I would spend no more than ten hours in Hanoi.

What I hadn’t realized is that even though there is a border crossing parallel to Hanoi, it’s not used because it’s difficult for the buses to cross the mountainous terrain. Instead, the buses go back down to near where I had just come from in order to cross the border. I had bused up to Hanoi for no reason! Well, I got to see the Kiwis that I was traveling with in Mui Ne. One of them was starting his trek back to New Zealand by plane the next day too, so it was good to give him a proper farewell.

Just for good measure, I had to be misled one last time by the Vietnamese. I was charged for a two-month visa for Laos. Granted, that’s what I got, but I only wanted a one-month visa and paid $20 extra for the extra month. I don’t know anyone else who has a two-month visa. I hadn’t heard that you could get a two-month visa very easily either. I was leery that it was fake. But, I made it to Laos okay, so I guess it’s authentic. Also, I was sold a bus ticket to Luang Prabang, Laos for $10 more than the ticket to Vientiane, Laos. But, my ticket was only valid as far as Vientiane. It didn’t matter though. I had heard of worse horror stories with bus trips from Vietnam to Laos, where you were charged more at the border and your ticket didn’t even get you to Vientiane. I made it to Vientiane no problems. I was in Laos. I was happy.

Disney World for Real

Dong Hoi is not on the backpacker/tourist trail. The Lonely Planet guidebook said as much and that’s what attracted me to the place. That and the fact that the city was just an hour motorbike away from what the guidebook calls Vietnam’s most spectacular cave system. I hopped on a sleeper bus and it all worked out well enough actually. The sleeper bus meant I had my own tiny little bed thing and wouldn’t be bothered by anyone else and, because I was ill and achy, the tiny sleeper bed wasn’t any less comfortable than a regular bed. I drifted in and out of feverish sleep for the next 6 or 7 hours to Dong Hoi. Then, the bus (full of locals) dropped me and only me off on the side of the road in Dong Hoi at about 11 at night. I was a bit disoriented from being ill and from the dark, so I took a room at the very hotel where the bus dropped me off. That meant I paid what I felt was an exorbant price… $12 for a room for one night! That’s double, even triple what I’ve been paying for the past two months! Oh well.

That night I somehow managed to convey to the receptionist that barely spoke English that I would like to hire a motobike guide to take me to the cave the next morning and that I would then like to get a bus for Hanoi. Everything worked out and at 7:30 the next morning I was back on a motobike in the drizzly, rainy weather. That was smart and I had plenty of time to think as much as I balanced my not-as-achy body on the back of the bike for the hour-ride.

When I got to the my destination it was more splurging. Because it was me, myself and I, I had to pay for an entire boat that is usually shared by up to ten people. But this meant I got the whole boat and guide to myself, so it was worth the ten bucks. When I took off in the boat it was still drizzly and rainy, but that added a beautifully mysterious element to my surroundings. Huge limestone crags were jutting out of bright, neon green rice paddies that seemed to glow in the gray weather. The tops of the crags were shrouded in mist. I was being lazily paddled through what seemed to be a landscape painting that was slowly coming alive around me. I completely forgot about being ill.

New turns brought new surprises and gorgeous views in my personal moving painting. Eventually, we were approaching a huge opening in one of the monstrous limestone crags. The gaping hole opened up to a huge, resonating cavern filled with massive stalactites and stalagmites. It all seemed so unreal. It seemed just like some magical fantasy place created by Disney World. Floating through the magic on a boat, I couldn’t help but to think of Disney’s infamous “It’s a Small World” ride. Except this time, instead of throngs of tourists, it was just me. Instead of corny music, I heard only the soft plish of my guides’ paddles rhythmically dipping into the water and echoing off the cavern walls. Instead of fantasy, it was reality.

My boat drifted through one massive cavern after the next. Each cavern seemed like great, majestic halls for great, majestic kings that must not be of this world. The creative patterns and soda straw tapestries that took hundreds of thousands of years, millions of years even, to create were certainly not of my world. I was in wonderland and it was real. My guides’ beached the boat in a couple places and I was able to get out and just wander around on my own, taking in the stunning and impressive natural art of water and sediment slowly carving new sculptures and weaving new patterns into rock. That’s when I realized… I really was in a moving painting. The cave I was standing in has not just existed for millions of years, but has been alive and growing and reshaping for millions of years. And the unfinished masterpiece was still slowly being formed right before my eyes. Each drip drop of water from the cavern ceiling arching high above was like another stroke of the paintbrush. And there I was, it the midst of it all, enjoying it alone, as if it was a work of art God was creating for my eyes only. How do I even begin to express my joy and gratitude at such a gift?

The entrance fee I paid bought me admission to a second, stunningly massive cave. Though, this cave you explore by foot after a long hike up the side of the huge limestone crag, which continually offered impressive views of the river and valley of rice paddies below. I had a guide for this cave and he told me some of the impressive facts about the cave’s formation. But, honestly, his words just flitted into my head and then vanished into cave’s dark shadows. I was too mesmerized by the cave’s beauty to worry about facts and figures. Sometimes, as a journalist, I think that you can miss the true treasures of a place or an experience, because you’re too worried about logging all the facts, figures and details so you can spit them back out later. Well, this time I wasn’t a journalist. I was a bewildered observer taking in the surrounding, unworldly beauty in shock.

By the time I had my fill of wonder and amazement inside my magical caves, the drizzly and misty gray weather outside had melted away into a blue heaven. The sun was slowly warming the looming crags and green rice paddies. I noticed my fever, aches and chills seemed to have melted away also.

I spent the rest of the day in Dong Hoi just chilling out at a local cafés, trying to catch up on my blogging. Occasionally, I was an amusing attraction for some of the locals: a lone, white, Western women in strictly Vietnamese territory.

Finally, my night bus came and I was en route to Hanoi. But, that was not before being pestered by a local who kept trying to make me his own personal muse. I didn’t comply as well as he might have liked. Why can’t the Vietnamese let me wallow in my own magical bubble? Why do they have to always come trampling in and pop it? A sigh…

Drugged in Hoi An

In Hoi An, Pieter had to immediately head back south. He had been traveling south and had already been to Hoi An, but didn’t want to pass up the 5-day motobike trek and went with us back north for the trip (he did it the boring way by bus along the coast on the way down). He eventually needs to catch back up with his old travel buddies. Markus and I spent one day together in Hoi An before he had to jump on a plane and head back to Germany for work. Okay, Hoi An is a tourist trap for tailored clothes. The freaking city is canvassed with tailor shops like the mountains were canvassed in plantations and crops. Lonely Planet is right. You can pass up the first couple dozen, but you eventually get suckered in. One day and Markus and I got suckered in. That’s partially because it was still drizzly and rainy and there was not much else to do. Markus was flying out the next day… but oh! They can get it all done in a day! Tailors working overnight. It worked out well for Markus though. He had a business meeting in Bangkok on his way out to Germany and had no business attire. Now he had some new suits for a cheap price and hopefully good quality. Mine ended up working out somewhat too, but in a less preferable way. I’m a sucker for tailored coats. Why? Because every non-sporty coat I’ve purchased has meant I have to scrunch my shoulders to fit and deal with silly, too-short sleeves (I opt for the scrunched shoulders instead of the too big waist that adds unnecessary and nonexistant pounds). So, tailored coat… great! I got two and a Japanese silk robe with pajama pants. And yet, I wouldn’t give that “poor” kid a dollar. These coats and silk pjs cost more than a dollar. I’m not telling how much. I could feel the frenzy starting within me… I wanted to shop, shop, shop! I wanted these tailors to make me the clothes out of the supermodel, fashion runway catalog… and they could! Oh I bought all right… I bought my bus ticket out of there! Silk pjs???!! I was leaving the next day just after I picked up what I already bought. Oooooh, but I kept oogling the tailor shops wanting to buy more. I didn’t see one, NOT ONE, westerner who didn’t have a bag of tailored clothes. If I had known. You can’t resist. If I had known how bad it was, I would have never come. Sure the town is nice, European looking, but you don’t notice… BECAUSE YOU’RE OOGLING THE GOODS THAT TAUNT YOU EVERY WHICH WAY YOU LOOK. I’m not exaggerating here. There are rows upon rows of these shops. Thousands of them. Buying my bus ticket out of there was one of the best decisions of my life. I wanted to travel. Not blow all my cash on stupid material crap!! I mean, just after I was ranting and raving about who is poor right??!!! It turns out I fared pretty well. I went in expecting to buy nothing and came out with three things. Two Australian girls went in wanting to buy two things and bought 36, yes 36 articles of clothing… a piece!! I don’t know how they’re going to get it all home. Bahhh! Yet, another ploy to cheat Westerners of their money!!! So how did mine workout then? Well, on the bus trip from Hoi An to Hue’ I left my original coat that I had brought with me on the bus. If you leave anything on a bus in Vietnam, kiss it goodbye. You’ll never see it again. I’m a little sad I lost that coat. It was a good coat even if it did scrunch my shoulders. No, it’s not my nice long coat mom. I knew better than to take anything too nice to SE Asia. It’s a coat I got actually back in high school. No wonder it scrunches my shoulders. But, I still liked it. Anyway, losing that coat really helped justify my tailored coat purchase. It’s rainy, cold and wet where I’m in Vietnam right now. A coat is necessary. Fortunately, I just whipped out a tailored coat and I was good to go. No, losing the old one was not a subconscious way to justify my coat purchase!

So I failed to mention that I was now traveling with a Spanish guy, whom Markus, Pieter and I had all met en route to Dalat, then again in Dalat. Unfortunately, I got sick just when we started traveling together. When we arrived in Hue in the evening I was feeling funny and feeling fussy. I woke up the next day with a throbbing headache, horrible bodyaches and a strong fever. I’m not sure how high the fevers ever got. I spent the whole first full day in Hue’ in bed, either at the hospital or in the guesthouse. The hospital ruled out Malaria and Typhoid Fever. The Spanish guy, Victor, was taking good care of me, helping me with whatever I needed. He helped me get to and from the hospital. He was very thoughtful and I was grateful. A local was also extremely helpful. He wasn’t a typical moto taxi driver, but he and friend took Victor and I to the hospital for very reasonable prices and even stuck around for two hours helping me translate my symptoms to the doctors and translating what the doctors diagnosed to me. I was so grateful for his help and kindness while I was feeling so miserable. If there was any time to discover that some Vietnamese people are caring, generous people this was it. The local didn’t want any money for sticking around so long and helping, but I forced a 100,000 dong note in his hand as thanks. That was enough to pay for my lodging for the night, but it was also about the equivalent of $6 USD. A lot, but really, very little.

So yeah, the doctors said it was probably flu but if it didn’t pass in two days to come back. The doctors were students, btw because it was a Saturday. The prescribed me paracetol and multivitamins. The whole visit plus prescription cost about $25. The paracetol helped bring my temp down and thus my headache subsided. The body aches never really went away. As soon as the paracetol wore off though, my fever was back with the headache. Day one, I stayed in bed. Not too much of a loss as it was still drizzly and rainy. But, day 2, I got sick of wasting time and we explored the Purple Forbidden City – the reason we came to Hue’ – even though I wasn’t close to 100 percent yet. The Purple Forbidden City is crap. Not worth the stop in Hue’, nor is it worth the admission fee. I heard that biking around the city is nice. I didn’t feel up for that though.

The next day I still wasn’t feeling well, but I couldn’t spend another day lying around. Partially because I’m so used to being on the move that I can barely handle lying around doing nothing and partially because Victor seemed to think that his care for me while I was sick earned him the right for a little romance. Nothing major. I didn’t feel exactly threatened or anything. But, still battling headaches, fever and all of the above, I certainly didn’t have the energy to fend him off and I certainly didn’t appreciate a man who could try to come on to someone who was feverish. So, I decided to just cut and run… to a city with no other Westerners.

What was I thinking? Feeling ill and going somewhere where barely any locals spoke English? Well, I wasn’t thinking. I was feverish.

Mountain Haven

We arrived in Dalat in the evening. The air was crisp, cool and fresh. A beautiful lake shimmered in the dimming light as the day turned to dusk. The Guesthouse Markus and I found was not only reasonably priced, but luxurious for a guesthouse. What a nice change! Dinner was delicious and cheap… Lonely Planet hit the mark right on with that local recommendation! On the bus to Dalat Markus and I met a Dutch guy who was traveling with another Dutch guy and some Israelis.

(Okay I’m writing the bleeping blog at a café while I wait for my bus to Hanoi… a Vietnamese guy who doesn’t speak English keeps blabbing to me in Vietnamese even though I don’t understand. Now, he’s thumbing through my guidebook uninvited and one of the three things he’s tried to get me to say in Vietnamese is ‘toilet’. Is this a person curious in a traveler or curious about having his very own clown or puppet? I have a hunch it’s the latter.)

After dinner, we ran into one Dutch guy, Pieter, who decided to kick it more with Markus and I. We made plans to rent bikes the next day and bike to some local sites I had it in my head that we could get as far as a waterfall 55 km away and back – the first part, down the mountain, would be easy; the second part, up the mountain, well, we could do it! Hehehehe…

The next day we got up early, ate breakfast and then searched high and low for mountain bikes. We had seen others on them, so we knew they could be rented, we just didn’t know where. Finally, we found a place. But the bikes looked shady. Then, we finally found another place and rented the bikes. Not more than five minutes into our jaunt though my bike was slipping gears incessantly, causing me to jam my knee several times. That wasn’t going to work. We went back, turned in the bikes and got our money back. At that point, I just wanted to rent some motobikes, but Pieter was bent on a mountain bike. So, we finally found a third place. The bikes seemed okay. We took them on a test run. But, I did tell Pieter that once we got down the mountain, we were sure to have problems. But hey, I was up for it. It was 12:30 by then. I just wanted to get going.

The trip to the first waterfall, just 15 km away was fun. Once we got outside of Dalat in the valley, it was downhill, or down mountain I should say. You didn’t have to pedal, just coast. At times, I was streaming past the motobikes! It was a rush! At the first waterfall, of course we were charged to park our bikes. What? Pay to park our bikes? What ever happened to free bike racks? Bahhh! So, after paying to park our bikes, we pay to get in to see the waterfall, only to be left with the choice of paying to “roller coaster it down” to the waterfall or walk. The “roller coaster” was actually a one-seater hand brake cart thing that looked kind of fun. So, we sprung for the $3.75 ride down, but decided to walk back up. It was actually pretty fun! You could whiz pretty fast through the trees if you didn’t ever hit the break! It was worth $3.75 for the first-ever run. I wouldn’t pay for it again though. The waterfall was nice. Nothing I hadn’t seen on my trek through the Thai jungle though (which by the way cost me $7 a day including the guide, trekking, food and lodging). After the waterfall it was back to down mountain biking. Hehehehe. Another natural rush! It was about a half hour before we reached the next waterfall near the foot of the mountain. We opted not to go in though. We had heard that this one wasn’t anything special and that they kept caged animals that they abused on display. We asked a Westerner exiting the waterfall as we arrived and he confirmed this rumor. So… onward to the waterfall further away… just about another 35 km! Markus wasn’t to keen on going. But, I just took off. I was having too much fun. Pieter was up for it so he followed, which meant Markus didn’t really have a choice and he followed. We were biking through a loooong flatish valley when my pedal just fell off. I couldn’t help but let slip one “I told ya so” to Pieter. But, we laughed it off. He pedaled back to a mechanic shack he saw to get another screw because we couldn’t find the original. When he got back though, it wasn’t the right one. So I took his bike, he took mine and one-pedaled and we all went back to the mechanic shack. We had lunch at the shack café next door. Some of the best Pho’ (traditional Vietnamese soup) and Vietnamese tea I’ve had. It was a fun little break for all of us. These locals were really nice. Charged us real local prices. We paid them more, of course. It seemed like a steal after all those inflated prices and since they didn’t want to charge me even double I wanted to give them at least double. See, I’m not stingy! With a freshly bolted pedal and a lunch in our bellies, we were again on our way. Twenty minutes later, Pieter’s tire went flat. Time to stop again. Another mechanic fixed the tire, and we felt good about spreading out our business. ; ) We took a coffee at the next door shack café this time. And off again! But, Pieter’s petal kept loosening and we had to stop every 15 minutes so he could retighten it. We finally had made it about the right distance, hours after we should have… but, still no sign of a waterfall. We asked locals, they pointed, we shrugged and followed their fingers. We ended up biking through a hidden coffee plantation, over a rickety bridge and through lots of local villages… but no waterfall. (Okay, I’m writing on the bus now. I have to have the laptop hang out in the aisle because the guy in front of me has his seat so far back. I move it when we stop to let others on. Yet, one of the bus “officials” says “hello” then motions for me to close my laptop. You can read everything on my face. I didn’t respond. But, I’m sure the look on my face said “Bring it on, buddy.” Then another guy slapped the first guy in the head and they all laughed and turned around. Hmmm… maybe I’ll give the “Bring it on, buddy” look more often. Seems to work.) Finally, it was about 5 in the evening and we decided to give up and turn back. We quickly realized though, that there was no way we were going to make it back through the loooong valley and up the huge mountain before midnight if we kept having to stop for Pieter to tighten the pedal on his bike. So… we hitchhiked. A piece of cardboard with Dalat penned on it did the trick in no time. A local woman and some local kids watched the whole spectacle. The woman was helpful and told us what we should pay 10,000 dong each. Even with her bargaining on our behalf we weren’t able to get a ride for less than 50,000 dong each. Five times what we should pay… because we’re Westerners.Bahhh! Whatev… we were having too much fun! On the bus with our bikes, we realized Pieter’s loose pedal problem was a huge blessing in disguise. If we had attempted biking up that curving mountain road in the dark without reflectors we would have surely been killed… by the bus we were on! We forgot about the crazy killer buses that race down two-lane streets through the middle, honking incessantly at motobikes to get out of the way or die, constantly overtaking other vehicles on blind curves. I’ve been on my fair share of crazy, killer buses by now. But, I even shrieked at one point on this one, as I was sure we (we meaning the 25 people packed into a place that sat 8) were going to plow right into the back of a truck as we braked and swerved back over to avoid a moto coming in the other direction in its own lane. I’ve never felt more relieved to have my own two feet planted on solid ground as when I got off that bus. Geez. All in all, the day was one fantastic adventure and we all a bit strung up on the whole experience for a bit. There was more to explore… but, we had tempted fate enough for the week at least, so the next day we planned to hire a guide and rent motobikes.

Well, I take the whole tempting fate thing back… for me at least. Our guide the next day was great. He took us to flower nurseries, silk farms (did you know you can harvest an 800 m to 1 km strand of silk from one cocoon?), coffee plantations (with various species – short: mocha, big: robusta, very tall: arrabica and tall: katima), stunning waterfalls, pagodas, temples and fed us the best food I’ve had yet in Vietnam. Of course, to get some good shots (which really, I don’t know how good they turned out) I had to put myself in some slightly precarious positions… but, I repeat, slightly. Nothing too dangerous! Really!

Our guide was so good, we decided to hire him to take guide us three through the central highlands to Hoi An (bypassing the coastal resort city of Nha Trang) for a five day trek. He would drive one motorcycle and one of us would ride on the back with him and Markus would drive a motobike and the other would ride on the back with him. It’s not common for Westerners to commandeer one of the bikes on such a long trek with an “Easy Rider” guide (that’s what these guys who do these guided tours are called). But, Markus had proved his moto skills on our day trip, so he got the approval to drive. That saved us money, because that meant less guides were needed. The trek was fantastic. I was on a natural high for an entire day afterwards… literally jumping around with energy and excitement not knowing what to do with myself. Again… getting ahead.

So yeah, fantastic. I could go into immense detail here or gloss over. I figure I’ll spare you guys and gloss over. More villages, more coffee plantations, tea plantations, rubber tree plantations, black pepper plant plantations, jackfruit trees, banana trees, curry plants bearing curry fruit (as the guide called it. Officially, I don’t know, but the “fruit” contains the seed they use to color their red curry), broom flower (again as the guide called it… they use the long bristles of this plant to make their brooms), durian (stinky fruit) plants, avocado plants, papaya trees, sugarcane grass (you could order a glass of fresh sugarcane juice at local stands along the road), and red chili plants all canvassing what couldn’t be more picture-perfect mountain landscapes with bright blue skies and puffy white clouds. We stopped in villages. Our guide explained everything from how the villagers farmed each crop to why their ceremonial shacks, or long houses, were shaped how they were (facing East to West in order to harvest the maximum amount of energy from the sun), to why their utensils were shaped how they were and how they were used. We stopped at an alligator farm (was it alligator or crocodile? I can never keep the two straight), and saw monkeys (in cages unfortunately. But also luckily, because these monkeys were waaay more aggressive than the one that just strolled on by me at Angkor Wat.) Our guide pointed out the area devastated by Agent Orange, which is now growing lush again. He pointed out the mountain where no one dares to tread because it’s still covered in mines. He pointed out the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail. He took us to waterfalls five times as big as the spectacular ones we had already seen. He took us to pools naturally formed by waterfalls and rivers merging, where leaves were so giant they were five, six, seven times the size of a human head. At one waterfall we met some wealthy locals (I say wealthy because they were bling blinging more than I have ever blinged blinged in my life) who were feasting one some kind of fowl they had barbequed, with homemade seasoning and local beer. They shared their waterfall picnic with us (hope that’s not why I’m sick! No messages of bird flu from Markus and Pieter yet… so I should be in the clear.) We traveled through cultivated and terraced hills and raw and wild jungle and even regal pine forests… we really had it all. I have to mention the downside to this though. Vietnam is losing more acres of pristine, wild jungle every month… probably everyday. Locals are burning more and more jungle and pine forests in order to clear more land for coffee.

Oh I can’t forget my first taste of local rice wine (which doesn’t give you hangovers) and the amazing food throughout the journey. Our guide had done his research and certainly knew where to eat. Fish, beef, raw pork, eel, rabbit, frog, fresh spring rolls you roll yourself… we tried just about everything.

You couldn’t have asked for better weather during the first three-days of our trek. The last two were wet and drizzly. At times the rain pelted and felt like little needles, especially when I tried to open my eyes to see where we were going. The last day I resorted to watching a blue-colored, blurry world pass by through my plastic poncho. These days of rain are probably why I’m sick. I got soaked and stayed soaked for two days straight and it was rather cool. Not freezing or anything, but cold and wet. Not to mention I was wearing just flip flops. Not much could be done though. We had to keep on keeping on. And, at the time, I was rather enjoying it. It really seemed like an adventure when we had to battle the rain. Plus, I liked skimming my feet over the puddles as we rode on the motobike. So yeah, that’s probably why I’m sick. Oh well. Afternoon of day five, we reached Hoi An. In all, 7 days straight on some sort of bike… One day of mountain biking, 6 days of motobiking. Whew! What an unforgettable week! Honestly, I felt ready to leave Vietnam then. What could I do to top that?? What could I do to experience more of the real Vietnam than that?

A Hop, Skip, and a Jump to the Western Sahara

…just kidding. But, with some of these pictures I might just be able to fool you. I’ve never seen sand dunes before! But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself… again.

Massimo and I bussed it to Mui Ne, a beach resort along the southern coast of Vietnam. Along the way, Massimo started chatting with a laid back and amusing German guy, Markus. By the end of the ride our little party of two became a party of three. But, that worked out perfectly, because Massimo was planning on rushing through Mui Ne. I, on the other hand, was considering staying longer to take wind surfing lessons, so now, I would have a new travel buddy when Massimo took off. In the search for a guesthouse, we also met two Kiwis. Our little group had now just grown to five. Massimo, Markus and I shared a room for the night to save on the cash. The Kiwis, Mahara and Bart, got a room right next door. We then all wound up booking a jeep together for exploring the red and white sand dunes the next day. Wait? Red and White sand dunes?? How cool!!! I’ll be honest. I hadn’t read up too much on Mui Ne before I arrived and I didn’t realize there were cool sand dunes to check out until we got there. I was pumped! Like I said above, I’ve never really seen sand dunes before. That night we all kicked it at the Pogo Bar. There was a German DJ who was really friendly and helpful. The drinks were a bit expensive, but it had free Wifi and great atmosphere… so that was good for us.

The next day it was early to rise and early to eat for an early start of adventure. Our jeep arrived at 7 on the dot… we wrapped up breakfast by 7:30 and headed for the dunes. Wow… how to describe? I don’t know if I can. Looking out across these massive hills of sand that are constantly shifting with the wind, it looks like your looking at heaps of flowing silk, wavering in smooth ribbons. The peak of the next dune looks so close… ha! You could rent these little plastic sleds from the locals to go sledding. We had been told by the German DJ that you should be able to rent them for 5,000 dong, unlimited slides. They try to tell you it’s 50,000 dong per slide. Okay, that’s a record. The little mongrels were going for ten times the price! When we kept refusing and then ignored them, they finally handed us the sleds for 10,000 dong a piece, unlimited slides. Double what we should have paid, but hey we were talking about 60 cents versus 30 cents here. But again, my point proven, you’re always paying at the min, double than what you should… just for being a Westerner. I’m starting to get a small taste of what being discriminated against would feel like. Oh, just so you don’t think I’m a scrooge here. Most locals (who don’t deal with tourists) work all day for $2… and live off that. So, 30 cents is a lot of money here. Anyway, I took a plunge on the slide… and got nowhere fast. Total rip-off. But, a 60-cent rip-off nonetheless. We ditched the sleds and took to diving off the dunes instead. Well, I was the only one ballsy enough to dive. Everyone else jumped feet first. It was so fun! We amused ourselves for about 45 minutes just doing karate kicks and dives off the sand dunes into… well, more sand. Of course, when you landed the dive you had to finish with a roll. It took me a few “dives” before I was really able to just thrust myself out there. Whaahahaha… it was so fun! Massimo had wandered off while the rest of us were diving and karate kicking. When I finally stopped throwing myself over the edge and looked up… Massimo looked sooo far away. Cool! I wanted to go deeper into the dunes! Markus and I took off. The Kiwis stayed and kept playing the jumping game. As Markus and I set off deeper into the dunes… a storm started brewing. The sky was darkening, clouds were building, winds were blowing, sand was swirling. Nothing too major. The storm was a little ways off… but it was still rustling the dunes a bit. The sand started forming into these currents that skimmed just above the dunes… until they finally spun off of the edge. Mesmerizing… Whoa… That’s all I have to say. Whoa. Can’t wait to trek through the Western Sahara Loic-style!!

After the white dunes, our guided jeep took us to the red dunes. The red dunes are cool, but less impressive. Not as big. More weeds. Still cool though. The last part of the morning adventure was a hike through Fairy Stream. More like Fairy Gorge of Natural Drizzly Sandcastles! Really. It was the gorge formed through sand by water. The walls of the gorge is sand that’s been shaped by water run-off. Totally drizzly sandcastle style! The sandy walls are rather hard and packed for sand… but still soft enough to send chunks crumbling as Mahara and I found out when we climbed it. We were the catalysts for a few miniature sand waterfalls. Cool… minature sand waterfalls… another first! The water through the gorge was shallow since it was the dry season, thus very easy to trudge through. The red sand mixed with the water, turning it a frothy ruddy red color. There were deposits of darker, coal-colored sand that would form cool swirls with the yellow and red sand. It looked like the same pattern of swirls you would find on marble tiles. I liked the name of this gorge or stream or whatever you wanted to call it. Fairy obviously makes you think of fairytale and these surroundings definitely seemed like something out of a Pan’s Labyrinth-style, The Little Princess-style or Finding Neverland-style fairytale (all great movies you should see if you haven’t seen them). The place is strangely compelling and intriguing with an almost absurdly exaggerated quality about it. Does that even make sense? If you saw the Pan’s Labyrinth or The Little Princess or Finding Neverland and think of the way the fairytale scenes were way illustrated in those movies, you would understand what I’m trying to say here. Either way… magical. Without a doubt. You know, it’s really invigorating when you discover that the imaginary realms of fairytales really do exist in some places… smile… yes, still very much a little girl sometimes. Unfortunately, there were kids that tagged along bursting your fairytale bubble every once in a while, acting as your surprise guide telling you where to go. Bahhh! They lead you to an overlook… which, gasp… you could easily find on your own… and a small waterfall… which gasp… is another easy find… and a ruin to a nice little surprise when they tell you about it ahead of time… thank you very much! Then, on the walk back they want money of course. Did you hire them? No. Did they really provide any service? No. Are you past the poor little kid act when all these kids have perfect teeth, nicer clothes than you and chocolate stains on their shirts? Yes. (Okay. So most still don’t live in houses so-to-speak with heating, a/c, proper windows with carpeting and tile and hallways and bedrooms and foyers and all that… but, in perfect honesty, I don’t think they want to… and why should they? They live on a tropical, palm-fringed coast with mysterious sand dunes and magical fairy streams. What’s the point of closing yourself in when all you need is a shack, a hammock a fire to cook fresh fish and some tourists to suckle milk money from?). A five-thousand dong coin was all I was willing to give up to the little money-hound when he held out his hand. He looked at me with a sympathy-beggar face (which my even my lil bro had perfected at 3 months) and whined, “No. One-dollar (that’s 16,000 dong).” Ha! When beggars get to be choosers… they’re not beggars!!! I snorted a scrooge-like laugh and walked off without giving him anything. He followed whining “Okay, five-thousand okay.” I turned and gave him nothing. Then I wrestled with whether I should feel guilty or not. The kid was not poor. But, I still felt like a scrooge. And, many couchsurfing hosts can attest… I’m not a scrooge! I definitely felt confused about how I should feel. Bahhh!

Again… I found the real, live realm of the fairytale world… only for that discovery to be popped… and by a kid nonetheless! I just wanted to scream at them to go dive off some sand dunes or chase crabs with a flashlight and leave me alone! There are children that need to be fed in this world… but… these little buggers are not them. The more I spend time in SE Asia, the more I wonder… how rich and how poor are people really? How rich are those with all those freaking material anchors that keep them slaved in offices all day and who feed off of fish that’s been shipped in frozen containers for days at fine dining restaurants. How poor are those whose bathrooms and kitchens aren’t what you’d call the most sanitary, but who eat the freshest fish from the sea, the freshest juice from coconut trees, just outside their shack… and who hound tourists for milk money in fairylands all day? What’s worse? A society that is built upon getting rich, but where, in most cases, you can still count on the average person giving you a fair price and a helping hand, as… gasp… a free favor? Or a society where wealth is still at war with “poverty” and it feels like everyone is out to cheat you, smiling all the while? A guide I had later in my travels, revealed something very interesting to me. He said all the “poor” villagers in Vietnam don’t want to work. Work as in the Western way of working. They want to stay in their villages, grow their own food, eat their own food and make their own supplies from the materials the amazingly exotic jungle just outside their shack provides. They embrace some modern convenience like western clothes (which all come from Asia for pennies anyways) and Satellite TV (so funny to see Satellite dishes on top of shacks – trust me, it’s common.) Life is simple, and they like it. They don’t want to change it. That all falls in line with the answer I get every time I ask whether villagers who see the tourists plodding in and out of the their villages ever wonder… what life is like outside their village? or, where do these Westerners come from? or, why do they come here? But, many have assured me… ‘No. They don’t care.’ Tourists are just a way for them to keep living the way they do and make some easy money while they’re at it so they can buy their satellite dishes and tack them on top of their shacks. Weeeeelllll, thousands were spent on my education so I could get a degree, so that I could get a good job, so I could work long and hard (for a while in a box!), just so I could save enough money to then travel halfway around the world, to see your little village of shacks in paradise! So please! Don’t mind me little villager, or city bumpkin for that matter, when I refuse to fork over my “wealth” of money just because you stuck out your hand!!! These villagers have satellite TV. The house where I grew up never had satellite TV. My little brother and sister still don’t have satellite TV. Hmmmm…

Okay, I’m done with the rant. There really are some poor, desperate people here. They are rarely ever the ones begging you for money though.

So, our morning of fun on the sand dunes and in Fairy Gorge (I like Gorge better than Stream) was over by noon. Massimo was back in time to catch his bus to Nha Trang (another beach resort city further up the coast, this one famous for good diving.) I might catch him a bit later in Laos. The rest of us were sticking around a bit longer. Again, I was contemplating wind surfing lessons. But, shortly thereafter, I decided I didn’t want to fork over $250 and maybe have to stay up to 5 days longer. I just didn’t have that kind of time or money. I couldn’t give up one dollar for crying out loud. Remember? Markus, Mahara, Bart and I had a fun afternoon finding a place to enjoy lunch, goofing off in the ocean (where I got stung by some unidentified creature that left welts wrapped around my ankle for a day), splurging on dinner ($7 for pizza!) and splurging on after dinner cocktails. Of course, some dancing ensured. The boys were fun and funny to dance with… hehehehe. We all had our own goofy moves we designated before we hit the dance floor and when we yelled out “MOVES!” we had to bust them out like crazy fools. Hahahhaha… it was so fun! Speaking of… I need to get those pics from the Kiwis…

The next day we all moved on. The Kiwis went to Nha Trang… I might catch them as well a bit later in Laos. Markus and I went to Dalat. Nha Trang was another beach resort city. Dalat was a mountain town in the central highlands that seemed to draw less Western tourists.

Breezing Through Saigon

So, back in Rach Gia, we hiked back to the guesthouse where I stayed before. The woman there had treated me well, so I was more than happy to give her more business and book our bus tickets to Saigon through her. She gave us a fair price and within a half hour we were on the bus, headed for Ho Chi Minh City. Massimo and I arrived in the evening at the bus station. Again moto drivers hounded us to take us were we needed to go. But, a Polish guy doing research for a tour he was organizing informed us we could take a city busy for 3,000 dong (or 18.75 cents) versus the 30,000 dong ( or $1.88) the moto drivers wanted to charge us. We were grateful for his insight and, obviously, we took the bus to the backpacker district. Once again, we found ourselves amidst a busy muddle of Westerners being hounded by Asians selling their whares. Massimo and I sought a guesthouse and found one for $7 a night. We had dinner and hit the hay. The next morning, a quick breakfast, then we set off the War Remnants Museum. Of course, the Museum is rather slanted… against the American supported South. The North did win after all. But, you can’t help feeling appalled at what the American government did. The torturing and the devastating shower of Agent Orange. There is a picture of an American soldier proudly holding up the mangled remains of a North Vietnamese soldier. There are pictures of children, who were born after the war, that are grossly disfigured from Agent Orange. There’s no question. The American government and some American soldiers made some appalling decisions during the Vietnam War. But, the museum failed to show the ugliness of the Viet Cong guerrillas. Instead, the museum highlights them as clever heroes who won with little means. Well, I’m reading a book that testifies to the ugliness of both sides. When Heaven and Earth Changed Places illustrates a war where both sides were made of soldiers and monsters, where both sides were menacing and cruel. It seems the American-backed South was the worse of two evils… but it seems the only reason is because that was the side with more means. Had the Viet Cong possessed the weapons and chemical warfare capability the Americans did… well, it wouldn’t be surprising if it too would have dropped Agent Orange.

Here are just some of the testimony/propaganda/truths/half-truths displayed at the museum, all of which were accompanied by photographs. Very slanted against Americans. The Vietnamese haven’t forgotten… (interesting to note, there were a lot of Asian tourists taking notes… I’m just saying.)

“In March 1965 the US government sent its troops to Vietnam. Each US soldier coming here received a booklet called ‘a new War style’ stating ‘We come here to help the people and conquer the South Vietnam. We come here to save the whole South East Asia from communist aggression and oppression. By that action, we can boost the security for the United States.’ But what the US soldiers had donen were arresting and killing normal people, including children, women, older people; destroying houses, schools, hospitals, spraying defoliants to devastate forests and crops… Among the 6 million turns of US soldiers being sent to Vietnam, more than 58,000 were killed and over 300,000 wounded.”

“Tiger Cages: Special cells for the detention of political prisoners considered “stubborn” by the Saigon authorities. Each cell measures 2.7 m x 1.5 m x 3m. During the hot season about 5 to 14 prisoners were kept in one cell. In winter time there was only one or two of them kept in it with their feet shackled to a long iron bar.”

“Two photographs published yesterday by the Chicago Sun-Times which are alleged to show a war prisoner being pushed alive from a United States Army helicopter in VietNam and falling to his death. The Sun-Times reported that the captions accompanying the pictures ‘indicate the man was pushed to his death because he refused to talk during an interrogation.'”

“American soldiers tied up persons to their tank and dragged them on roads to death.”

“At about 8-9PM on February 25, 1969 a special naval team called SEAL (a unit of the well-trained special force of the US Army) consisting of 7 soldiers led by First Lieutenant Bob Kerrey infiltrated into Thanh Phong village, Thanh Phu district, Ben Tre Province. They entered a cottage and cut the throats of Mr. Bui Van Vat, 66 years old and Mrs. Luu Thi Canh, 62 years old; then dragged their 3 grandchildren hiding in a nearby sewer out, stabbed them to death, then opened one child’s abdomen. Thereafter, they moved into the cave shelter of Mrs. Vo Thi Tro’s family and took all 16 members on the shelter cover, then shot dead 14 people (including 3 pregnant women) and opened a girl’s abdomen. The only victim survived was Bui Thi Luom, 12 years old, wounded at the legs. Not until April 2001, did former US senator Bob Kerrey confess his crime before the international public opinion.” (A book I’m reading about a woman’s first-hand account of the war in Vietnam reveals villages were often spies for the Viet Cong and a real threat for the South/Americans… but nonetheless, these acts are revolting and disturbing.)

“When these two boys were shot at, the older one fell on the little one, as if to protect him. Then the guys finished them.”

“‘This man and two little boys popped up from nowhere,’ says Haeberle. ‘The GIs I was with opened up, then moved in close to finish them.'”

“Letting snakes out into the prisoner’s trousers. This method of torture was especially inflicted on women prisoners.” (The book I mentioned confirms this. But it was South Vietnamese soldiers, not American soldiers fighting for the South who committed this kind of torture in the book. I’m sure both were responsible.)

“Bringing water into the stomach of the prisoner through his nose with the help of a rubber pipe. The prisoner was tightly fastened with his head kept lower than his feet. He had been gagged. The cruelest torturers soaked soapy or limed water and ran it into the prisoner’s nose. In a matter of minutes his belly inflated strangely. The torturers kicked him or trampled him brutally on his belly. The liquid mixed with blood spurt out from the prisoner’s nose and mouth, which had been gagged even.”

“Dripping water from a faucet on a spot of the head where hair was shaved off. The prisoner was kept bound tightly. Enduring such torture for hours, the tortured person felt the weight of each drop of water as heavy a blow hitting his brain.”

“American sprayed 72 million litres of toxic chemicals in Vietnam. 60 percent of Mangrove forests were destroyed by defoliants.”

“The Vietnam War has ended. But the war of Agent Orange victim is still going on.”

“Never in human history have people witnessed one country’s making war to the living environment of another. Yet, the United States has engaged in this ecological experiment that no one has dared or will dare carry out.” (Contextual statement of Senator Nelson at a Senate hearing, Aug. 1970)

That night it was Indian food for dinner… yum!… and dancing at Go 2 club that night… fun!. Then, finally, sleep.

The next day Massimo and I took a day tour to a religious temple that combines Buddhism and Catholicism. The temple was… kitschy. It looked like a little kid playground more than a religious temple. In the afternoon, the tour took us to the Cu Chi Tunnels. These are the tunnels the Viet Cong soldiers used to remain elusive during the war and avoid the blanket bombing by American aircraft. We also saw plenty of demonstrations of various booby traps. Soooo… booby traps aren’t just for Indiana Jones movies. The Viet Cong guerrillas were clever and crafty. There is no question about that. Massimo and I tried tapioca root, a staple of the Viet Cong soldiers during the war. It tastes like slightly sweetened potato. An interesting day…

Next stop: Mui Ne.

Sweet and Sour Phu Quoc

In Rach Gia (not to be confused with the pic of Phu Quoc to the left)I was introduced to my first taste of delicious Pho’. Pho’ is the popular soup in Vietnam that is little more than some rice noodles, bits of beef and greens, water and oil… but, they must spice it right with something because 9 times out of 10 it’s delicious. The woman at my guesthouse in Vietnam was exceptionally helpful and pleasant, telling me what is the proper amount to pay for a moto around town (versus the ridiculously inflated prices tourist hounds try to get away with) and where to find internet access. I was on my own, but I was expecting a friend soon and the guesthouse staff was friendly, so I felt relatively good. On my late night walk home though from the inet café to my guesthouse though, I got lost. I asked several people how to get to the street listed on the business card I had and they all pointed vaguely in various directions. Okay…. Finally some women seemed to know where I needed to go. They insisted on taking me on their moto… gesturing that it was dangerous to be walking around that late by myself. I paid them about the equivalent of 63 cents for a moto ride and I arrived safely at my guesthouse. I slept easy knowing Massimo would be coming the next day and I would again have a travel partner.

The next morning I was late getting to the bus station to meet Massimo. But, that didn’t matter. Apparently, his bus arrived 3 hours ahead of time (at 4 am instead of 7 am). So he had been waiting since the wee hours of the morning. I felt so bad! He even got kicked out of a café when he started dozing off… how rude! (I’ve come to find the Vietnamese – on the tourist trail anyways – are often rude.) Some moto drivers said they remembered him arriving and helped me look for Massimo. When he returned to the bus station they brought him to my guesthouse… what an ordeal! (I’ve since come to find that most things are a big ordeal in Vietnam). So, Massimo had a nice doze in my room while I went out for breakfast and to use the internet. When I came back it was time rouse Massimo and head to the dock so we could board our boat that would be heading to Phu Quoc Island. Or so I thought… The way I understood it, we supposed to be on board by noon. Turns out, we didn’t depart until 1:30 pm.

We arrived on Phu Quoc late in the afternoon… and of course, we were flooded with offers for private taxis, minibuses and motos to the most popular beach on the island – Long Beach. Massimo and I opted for a moto taxi for just under $2 each. The moto drivers helped us find a nice, cheap, but clean bungalow to share at the very end of Long Beach. I would say it was beachfront, you could look out and see the ocean from our bungalow, but there was about 50 yards of sand that was piled up in most places for construction and an unfinished wooden dock bridge. So, to get to the beach, we had to walk along this skinny concrete wall of sorts that wound around the construction site and through some tropical, swampy marshes. Then we reached a dirt gravel road. Just a few yards to the end of the road and we were on the white sand beach with postcard-perfect palm trees giving way to a dark tropical blue ocean. There was a fancy resort just behind this part of the beach with a pond full of big, bright green lily pads sprouting brilliant pink blossoms. Breathtaking and gorgeous. A woman in a neighboring bungalow had clued us in to some cheap, but delicious places to eat, so we wandered down the beach in search of one of these places for dinner. While we were wandering we came across some really kitschy and tacky sculpture things just kind of haphazardly strewn on the beach in front of one resort… pacchiano… as Massimo would say. But, then, around another bend, we discovered a random collection of boulders just as haphazardly strewn about the beach and the shallow waters. These were rugged and beautiful… not kitschy or tacky. We found one of the recommended places for dinner right along the beach and marveled at how lucky/blessed we were to be in such a beautiful place.

The next morning we slept in late, had a late breakfast where we discovered the strong, slightly bitter, but addictive Vietnamese coffee, walked the beach, hopped online for a bit, explored further down the beach and into town… and eventually booked a snorkeling trip for the next day. We realized Phu Quoc is less of a backpacker destination and more of a wealthy Europeaner destination. Things were geared more toward the high end. Internet access on the beach was outrageously expensive. In town, you could get internet for free at an ice cream shop. Not a bad deal if you ask me. Buy ice cream, get ice cream and internet. Yeah! Even though the place seemed a bit “La Ti Da” it wasn’t too hard finding the cheaper alternatives. It was hard finding an working ATM though. Of course, the big resort waaaaaay at the other end of the looooong Long Beach had a working one. On the walk back to our bungalow in the evening, I was such the little child. I kept chasing the crabs with my flashlight, sending them in a skittering frenzy, yelping and giggling every time they skittered near, even on, my feet. I couldn’t stop giggling. I loved the little crab game!

(That little froggy hung out in our bungalow – is he a frog or actually some other amphibian?- once he even surprised me when he was underneath the toilet seat!) The next day we had to get up early for our snorkeling adventure. We grabbed a quick breakfast then headed to the beachside booking hut. They took us to a minibus from there, which drove us to the docks at the southern tip of the Island. Then we boarded our boat for our snorkeling adventure! This was a first for me! I have snorkeled at Discovery Cove (an offshoot of Sea World in Orlando, FL)… but, I had never snorkeled in the ocean. I was excited! The guides on our boat were neither rude or friendly… just there to do a job and go home it seemed. Massimo has been snorkeling in the Maldives and said the snorkeling off Phu Quoc couldn’t compare to the Maldives but it was good enough. For me, a first-timer… it was magical! It is such an entirely different world underwater! So many colors. Pinks, purples, greens, mauves, yellows, oranges, lava reds! So much coral, so many fish! All kinds of different shapes and patterns… everything moving with a gentle sway… a subtle echo of the stronger waves rolling above the surface. I loved holding my breath so I could plunge down and twist and glide between the gullies of coral-covered rocks underwater, so that the coral seemed to loom above me from all angles. The fish always stayed just out of reach… every part of their body sensing your movements. If you “waved” at the coral… disturbing the water closest to it… it would quickly retreat into its… well, I don’t know what you call it… shell tube thing? We dove at three spots off three of the smaller islands that trail off the tip of Phu Quoc Island. We also had lunch on the boat, which included some delicious fish and not so delicious Dalat wine. Dalat is a city in the mountainous central highlands of Vietnam. The city is beautiful… the wine is terrible. More on the city later.

Our guides rounded out our snorkeling trip with a visit to one of the smaller beaches on Phu Quoc with darker sand and rougher waters. I took a nice long swim into those dark waters. That evening I trailed behind Massimo on the walk home down the beach. I sat on a lounge chair for a while just taking in the mysterious ocean that stretched before me in the darkness. I watched the stars slowly emerge from their hiding places. I recognized the stars this time. Same ones as in the Cambodian sky. Huh… go figure (hope you caught the sarcasm there – I’m not that dumb. But then again, when I think of how the early travelers navigated by the stars, it makes me feel really dumb.)

I don’t think I’ll ever tire of the sound of waves breaking on the shore and the feel of digging your toes into cool sand. When I finally started making my way slowly back I paused at the bend with the boulders. The sound of the waves lapping up, and sometimes crashing, against them was different than the sound of waves breaking on shore. I just closed my eyes and listened. Then I opened and watched. The boulders looked like sleek, black marble in the moonlight. The water looked like melted silver mixed with melted onyx. Finally, I tore myself away and continued on toward the bungalow. As I approached the narrow concrete walkway, I could hear the chorus: bullfrogs, crickets, cicadas and all sorts of other amphibians and insects breaking out in concert. It was so loud. You couldn’t even hear yourself breathing. It was incredible. Again, I just stopped… and listened. Now, that is natural surround sound. I can’t describe how incredible it was… and surprising. Massimo and I had walked through that swampy marsh at least four or five times before… and not once had there been such a chorus. When I got back to the bungalow I asked Massimo if he had heard the concerto. He had and he was as delighted as I was. The day was a true treasure.

Massimo and I planned to leave the island the next day. We tried to hire moto drivers to take us to the boats… but they wanted to charge us insanely inflated prices because they knew we wanted to rush to make it to the boat on time. We’re not really talking that much money… a little less than $10 each. But, we knew we came for less than $2 each, so they were wanting to charge us 5 times the already touristy price. We were in a rush, but we were appalled by their greediness, so we opted to set off walking in search of other moto drivers. It took us a while before we flagged down a local woman who then flagged down another young man who took us both on his moto (so yes, that means three people balancing on one moto… not uncommon… especially in Cambodia, though Vietnam has laws against it.) Neither of them understood “boats” though, so I looked in the trusty Lonely Planet for the name of the town of the port… and pointed it out to our moto driver. He nodded that he understood and we settled for paying him a little more than $3 for both of us on his one bike. Well into the ride, I began wondering if we were going to the right place. The trip seemed quite a bit longer than last time. Then, just outside of our destination a friend of our driver met up to take one of us on his bike. He spoke English well enough and asked why we were headed to the south. We explained that we were hoping to catch a boat back to the mainland, but that we realized we were now too late. He informed us, that not only were we late, but we were miles away from where we should be… apparently, the port where the boats arrived had changed a few years ago. It wouldn’t be the first time the “trusty” Lonely Planet would steer me wrong. We had no option left but to grab a guesthouse in the wrong part of the island for the night (with no beautiful postcard-perfect beaches mind you) and try again the next day. The guesthouse the moto driver took us to gave us an overpriced, shady room. But whatev, it was one night. He also told us that the all the boats leaving the next day were full… but, if we paid him extra, he could use his “connections” and get us tickets. Geez, these people never cease to try to scam! We said “yeah sure fine”… but as soon as he left we went in search of a travel agency to find our own boat ticket. The first one we went to also said the boats were full, but the second one had open seats for the right price. We finally had our tickets! Now if we could just get to the boat…

In the meantime, we wandered around the dirty port town in search of dinner. Two girls came rushing toward us asking us, no telling us rather, that we wanted to eat. We actually did… so we let them lead us to some random tables and chairs and seat us. They then promptly supplied us with a menu. The odd thing was… there were no prices listed (hello, that should have been a red flag). Naturally, we chose something we were interested in and asked for the prices. They quoted 15,000 dong (about $1, the standard and reasonable price for Vietnam) so we said, “Yeah, that sounds right. Okay. Sure.” So, the next weird thing: we order and they walk off out of site to get our food. It took them a while… in the meantime, their friend chatted us up all friendly… and finally they returned with our food. It looked good. It tasted good. All was good… until they demanded 50,000 dong (about $4.50). Okay, $4.50 is not a lot… but it’s still 4 ½ times the standard price, which they quoted. They claimed we misunderstood them. At this point I was getting rather angry. Every freaking person wanted to swindle us. I don’t care if we’re Westerners and we have more money (which, hello, backpackers like us DON’T have a lot of money. It’s why we travel in SE Asia… cause it’s cheap and we can only afford cheap!) . I don’t care if it’s 4 freaking dollars. When people are constantly trying to fool you, trick you, rob you… it puts a real sour taste in your mouth. And when everyone does it… it adds up fast. Right in front of us too, the girls paid for the food and pocketed their kickback. To be honest, I was beginning to like Asian culture less and less. The people seemed untrustworthy and their method of business turned you into a stingy scrooge even when you aren’t one by nature… but in any case… Welcome to Vietnam. Phu Quoc Island has its magic, but the locals we dealt with seemed to have a way of making us forget that at times. As it turns out, most of Vietnam is that way…. very bitter sweet.

The next morning Massimo and I made it to our boat…

Phu Quoc Island…

…is a sort of paradise really. Lush, postcard perfect beaches lined with palms. Great seafood and ridiculously cheap prices. Awesome snorkeling!! I will elaborate, but just wanted to say the exotic island was great (but almost trapped us). I’m learning that Asian’s are out to scam you big time everywhere in SE Asia. But, now I’m in Ho Chi Minh City with Massimo. Literally, at this moment. Just arrived today. So yeah!!! We’re all caught up!! Will add pics to previous posts as soon as I can!!

On the Road to ‘Nam… Alone

I headed back to Sihanoukville because my previous one-week jaunt there made it a familiar place with familiar faces. It’s more lively with more backpackers so I also thought I might have a better chance of finding some people to travel with there. Lo and behold, I found an Italian. Oh great. Italians are trouble. Of course, since I’m an Italiana at heart, Massimo and I hit it off well. We discovered we both had ideas about heading to Vietnam soon. So, we decided to try and explore ‘nam together. But first, Massimo had to go to Phnom Penh to pick up his visa. I’d already been, so I stuck around Sihanoukville to get going on my blogging and to get some work done online. We were shooting for meeting up in Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon, in two days. Well, it’s been two days and I haven’t made it to Ho Chi Minh. I have made it to Vietnam though. I had bought a bus ticket from Sihanoukville, Cambodia to Saigon. The only bus left early in the a.m. I don’t have an alarm clock or anything with me, so I always have to rely on others to get me up if I need to be up early. I asked the crew at the beachside guesthouse I was staying at to give me a wake up knock. They promised they would and they have done it before, so I had no reason to doubt. But, no knock ever came… and I woke up an hour late. That means I was out the $17 because you get no refunds for tickets. The guesthouse crew told me ‘too bad’ and said I’d have to go the next day. Up until that point I had really gotten to know the crew at that guesthouse and had spent plenty of time and money there, with lodging and food for the past week and I had edited some of their website pro bono, so I was a little irked by their ‘we forgot, too bad attitude.’ I wanted to get to ‘nam though so I decided to tag along on a bus back to Kampot (it’s closer to the border) with another traveler at the guesthouse. We were supposed to leave at 9 am, but the guesthouse crew screwed up again and waited til 10 mins before the bus left to try and book our ticket (even though we asked them to book at 8 am). Unsurprisingly, the bus was full at 10 mins til departure. There were no more buses to Kampot for the day, so our only option left was to take a taxi. Okay, book us a taxi then. Well, they generally leave every hour, but all the taxis were being used at 10, so we had to wait til 11. Eleven rolled around… no taxi. We asked what was up… and got a response of “Oh I call the taxi for you now.” What?! But then I was really irked. It was weird. The guesthouse was really really accommodating at first and now they were being total crap. The other traveler, a swiss guy, and I decided to just grab a moto to the taxi station and book the taxi ourselves. Finally, we were en route to Kampot. Yeah! Things went more smoothly there. That is, after a stray nail on a chair ripped a huge hole in the seat of my pants. Good thing I was wearing long top that covered it!

From Kampot I was able to snag a last-minute, one-hour ride to the border on the back of a moto for $10. At the border, I snagged another moto ride to get to the nearest city in ‘Nam, Ha Tien. That turned out to be really cool because we stopped at a pagoda that was built into a huge rock. It had great views of the border where ‘Nam meets Cambodia. It also had some bats. Nice little surprise. The moto driver also took me to the nearby beach for a quick look on the ‘Nam side. Right away, there’s a noticeable difference in ‘nam from Cambodia. It’s tremendously more developed. More paved roads (though they’re still bumpy) and more concrete houses versus shacks. There are still numerous shacks though. To the average Western ‘Nam would still be significantly underdeveloped, but after being in Cambodia for the past two weeks it seems like such a modern world.

I was still a ways off from Ho Chi Minh and it became evident I wouldn’t make it there by the end of the day so I started reassessing my plans. Ha Tien is on the southern coast of ‘Nam and there’s this island off the southern coast that’s supposed to be a star attraction of ‘nam, so I figure I should hit it while I’m so close. So, that became my new destination. But, not so fast. Even though Ha Tien is the closest city in ‘Nam to the island, it doesn’t have a ferry to it. I have to go further down the coast to a bigger port city to catch the ferry. Only, the moto driver said there were no more buses for Rach Gia for the day and I’d have to wait til morning to go. The moto driver didn’t seem to pressed for time and he hung around once I found a place to stay, so he took me to an inet café. I since learned he was planning on staying with me in my room so he could take me to the bus station early in the morning. Oh great. How am I going to get out of this one. I kind of needed him because he spoke at least a little bit of English versus the non-existent English with all the people in Ha Tien. Ha Tien isn’t big on the tourist trail. What’s a girl to do? Go change some money. The moto driver took me to an ATM. Luckily the atm happened to be at a bank and though the bank was closed, some workers were still there. Better yet, one spoke English very well. I asked him if there really were no more buses to Rach Gia that day (well, evening by then). He said ‘No. Not really. There is a bus at 8 pm.’ Great! That puts me closer to the island and further from the moto driver!! I told the moto driver to take me to the bus station and he did. I got a ticket for the night bus and by 8:15 I was en route… on the bus… the bus with a death wish! The mini travel bus only had two other passengers and I guess that was reason enough for it to race down the paved, but narrow, bumpy and pot-holed road at deadly speeds. The driver was manic! I survived the death bus though… and made it safely into Rach Gia where my trusty Lonely Planet actually correctly directed me to a nice, cheap guesthouse… for once!

Tomorrow I’m waking up early to meet Massimo at the bus station. I emailed him about my change of plans and it didn’t take much for him to decide to follow suit and change his. He had just made it to Ho Chi Minh, but he barely whined before taking off to get a night bus to Rach Gia so he could join me on my exotic island excursion.