Tuesday, October 27, 2009

This was written two short days ago, just didn't have internet to post it on our way back to Hanoi. Tonight we are celebrating Blaise's 23rd birthday (technically it starts at midnight), and are mentally preparing for our departure towards Laos.

We've made it to Halong Bay, or rather the Bai Chay district in Halong City, and are currently relaxing in our hotel. We've had a few varied days since the last post, starting off with the Thang Long Puppet Theatre and concluding most recently with a Halong Bay boat tour. As for the show, the entire performance took place in the water, with a wide variety of puppets – human, animal, and supernatural – all part of a traditional Vietnamese legend. To the side of the aquatic stage were a group of musicians and singers, who provided both the music and the characters' voices. Overall, despite it being their fifth performance of the day, the cast was quite enthusiastic and seemed genuine. There's plenty more information about the art form, and a photo of the theatre on that magical source of information Wikipedia.

Our final day in Hanoi was somewhat business-oriented, as our main priority was getting more pages put into our passports. The US Embassy offered the service for free, so the only cost was the moto rides we took through the city (we opted for non-bicycle transportation for ease and a change of pace). After picking up our passports we also did a little sight-seeing at both Van Mieu (Temple of Literature) and the One Pillar Pagoda (literally a photo-op).

We also got some much-needed chain lube delivered for our bicycles – here they only use motorcycle oil which it too thick and nasty for our sweet rides.

Speaking of our bikes, the two-day 160km ride from Hanoi to Halong City went by rather quickly since the road is smooth and slightly downhill. We had some minor difficulties actually getting out of the city, not only was it a bit complicated to find the road we wanted (ended up taking a parallel highway, so it all worked out), but we also had some bicycle issues to start the day. Just derailleur and brake issues, nothing major :-), and thankfully Blaise is a skilled mechanic!
Due to a lack of hotel options in Sau Do, the town roughly half-way through our journey, we had to stay at a somewhat sketchy place that also offered massage, but our room itself was more than reasonable. Everything in Sau Do was cheap, our dinner of pho and a Bia Ha Noi on ice was only 30,000 Dong, and our breakfast was such a good deal we had to have the seller write down the price so we could actually believe her. For 8 omelet-sandwiches (Liz eats hers without the egg, of course) and 5 coffees the total bill was 70,000 Dong, around $4 for all five us to get nice and full. At first we thought she meant 70,000 Dong each, with seemed ridiculously high, and we're obviously unsure what exactly she thought was going on inside our brains, but it all got sorted out with smiles all around. The fresh fruit – apples, pomegranates, and plums – were also delicious, completely one of our most well-rounded and tasty breakfasts yet. Our second day of riding, which ended up totaling 90km, was supposed to be about 12km shorter, but we took a bit of a wrong turn. We misread our map when we were quite close to Halong City, and took an island just off the shore, which was accessible by a bridge, as Cat Ba Island, home to a national park and a small town with hotels and tourist amenities.

Turned out, after we'd cycled across most of the island, failed to find anything even resembling an affordable hotel, and examined the port in detail, that we were actually on Tuan Chao Island!
That meant we got to arrive in Bai Chay, the tourist-side (with hotels and seafood restaurants) of Halong City, in the dark instead of before sunset. It seems we almost always arrive at a hotel either in the dark or soaking wet, so in general darkness is the preferable choice. There is an entire block, called Vuong Dao, of hotels here, which worked to our advantage as we were able to get nice, clean rooms for a low-price. At least there was still plenty of seafood waiting for us:

Today then, was a day of uber-touristing, since we only allotted ourselves two nights in Halong Bay. We ended up splitting up, with us and Blaise opting for an afternoon day tour, while Luke & Christine are staying overnight on a boat. We'll meet up again at noon tomorrow, and then cycle half the distance back to Hanoi. This is the only time we've had to retrace our path, but we all want to focus more on cycling, and are sick of having bicycle problems created by bus rides. The hills of Laos may prove tortuous, but until then we are still craving more riding days than bus-riding days. If all works out as we hope, we will not have to take any alternate transportation throughout Laos, but obviously we have no idea what may happen...

Halong Bay was simply amazing, seemingly infinite limestone karsts emerging from the blue-green water amidst a subtle fog.

Junks and other tourist boats were numerous, all lazing along through the water. We stopped at a floating village, where seafood was being farmed and girls were selling fresh fruit from boats.

Everywhere the scenery was impressively jaw-dropping, every angle was so interesting we didn't really know when to stop taking pictures!

We have obviously been fortunate enough to see many natural wonders of the world, but Halong Bay is certainly near the top of the list, well worthy of its UNESCO World Heritage status.

We negotiated a cheap ride on a boat that was dropping a group of tourists off at Cat Ba island, the place we'd incorrectly thought we were yesterday, so we ended up with the top deck to ourselves on the way to the island, and the entire boat to ourselves on the way back. We'd actually tried to book a private boat earlier in the day, but when we returned after lunch the guy we'd talked to had disappeared, but it all worked out as that was pretty much what we got.

And our crew were low-key and friendly, even sharing some of their banana moonshine with us.

Tonight is just relaxing, we're going to go out for a(nother) seafood dinner soon, and maybe watch a movie later, but in the meantime Nat Geo is providing sufficient entertainment/background noise...


And now for your moment of zen:

Yes, that is weasel coffee you see... eaten, digested, and excreted by 'special' Vietnamese weasels, which makes the coffee smoother and more deliciouser, or something.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The newest article up on Travelfish is entitled Confessions Of A 'Cheating' Cyclist. It goes into some depth about all of the unexpected factors we've encountered while cycling.

We've bounced from Hue all the way up to Hanoi, and while we'll be here for at least another day or two, there's one final Vietnamese H-Town in our future: Halong Bay. The good news is that we should be done with bumpy buses, and are ready for tackling a massive leg of cycling. Thus far we've done about 1600km over the past 10 weeks, we'll cover the same distance in the next four. So the intensity is definitely getting cranked up a few notches!
Our cycling plans from Danang to Hue earlier in the week were actually psyched out by the gray and rainy skies. We'd done too much weather-oriented internet research the night before, and the forecast seemed to signal an inevitable downpour, so we thought we were being wise by cramming ourselves into a packed minibus rather than going for a long day of riding. Of course it didn't rain a drop until darkness fell in Hue! Plus the bus ride was tremendously bad, as were packed in tight in tiny seats with no leg room whatsoever for over three hours and our bikes were roughly manhandled. But hindsight aside, we thought we made the best decision we could and it turned out we were wrong.

Hue was at least a decent enough place to be, we spent a fun afternoon exploring its ancient citadel before getting rained on.

We posed for a few group photos, stared at some military equipment recovered from the American enemy, and checked out some pricy art galleries.

The two of us then went to a cultural performance, featuring traditional music and dance, which was short and sweet but pretty interesting. Highlights included a 'dance for the king' with Chinese dragons giving birth and a cheerleader-style pyramid formed in the dark except for strategically placed glowing lanterns. Pictures and a video will undoubtedly due more justice than that horrid description:

We also enjoyed an Imperial Dinner, a romantic multi-course feast that was elegant and delicious. While it wasn't quite up to par with a similar dinner we ate in Korea, it was also a fraction of the cost. And the Dalat wine we had nicely completed the meal.

Otherwise in Hue we were mostly just ready to move onwards, as we are feeling a bit of traveler's malaise at the current moment. It's hard being on the road for this long, and it's frustrating that we aren't able to cycle quite as much as we'd like. The sheer size of Vietnam has meant we've had to ride many more buses than desired, and there really isn't much we can do about that fact. Plus, to be honest, what we are seeing right now is generally a tad boring, and the gloomy weather certainly doesn't help. While we are still enjoying ourselves, we cannot wait for the focus to return to cycling, and our current somewhat aimless wandering to be replaced by more solid adventure. We don't really know what to expect in Laos, other than that we've heard great things from many people, but we are all ready for a change. At least Halong Bay should be enjoyable, as it is a beautiful and scenic location, but following that we will be beginning a stretch of about twelve days of hard cycling en route to Luang Prabang, Laos. We'll make a stop outside Phonsovan for a day to see the Plain of Jars, but other than it's a lot of time in the saddle.

Hanoi so far has been pretty nice, after arriving here via a more than reasonable overnight sleeper bus, we spent today walking through the Old Town.

Full of old buildings and an active populace, the tourist shops seemed balanced out by 'real' stores. We are also staying near a large lake and a nice park:

Tonight we are going to see a traditional Water Puppet Theater, which is supposed to be most impressive. We're ready to be impressed...

Tomorrow will be spent here again, and then presumably the next day we will ride for Halong Bay, a two-day journey.

More soon,

Here's your moment of zen, from Hue:

Friday, October 16, 2009

New article up on Travelfish, all about exploring the ancient glories of Angkor by bicycle.

Karaoke and dragons, how could we forget?

There were some fantastic other performances as well (Liz doing “Hit Me Baby One More Time” for example), but the group finale was certainly a great highlight!

Back on our first night in Dalat, we ended up having perfect timing, as we arrived in town for the annual Full Moon Festival. Of course we didn't quite know that, so we literally stumbled into a massive celebration while wandering around after dinner, and were quite impressed with what we saw. Dragons en masse, with accompanying bands of percussion, though all children. It was definitely a night of fun for the entire community, so as just about the only foreigners around, we were just fortunate to watch it. For hours dragons shook their best, drums banging loudly behind them, with crowds packed in thick on all sides. Balloons were for sale, excitement was in the air, and at times the dragons even breathed fire. Enjoy all the videos, we definitely enjoyed watching them “in real life.”

Catching up to now, we've spent the past two nights in Hoi An. Before that our two day in Quy Nhon were enjoyable and relaxing, as was the ride there (well, it was also long, hot, and hilly).

Beach time was the main priority, though Anderson managed to fit in a brief tour of the town as well.

The bus ride, which we thought had to take us to Danang, resulted in us and our bicycles being dropped off at a random junction, literally in the middle of the road, 10km outside of Hoi An.

Renowned for its “Old Town,” there's also plenty of tourist crap available for sale in this town “that oozes charm” according to the guidebook. So even while wandering amongst 19th century buildings that somehow survived the Vietnam War, we're constantly offered $2 t-shirts, $10 custom-made pants, cheap shoes, or lacquered goods for varying prices. The buildings are indeed unique and interesting, and the shopping was also more exciting than usual, too – none of us managed to escape without spending more than a few Dong!

We stayed at a somewhat fancy hotel, complete with a swimming pool, free cocktail hour (more like adult-smoothies), and a breakfast buffet. All that for $10 each per night, yet for our budget that still counts as living it up :-). We have all reunited, although finding Blaise on Hoi An's endless main drag took us a bit of time, but it all worked out in the end.
Today actually ended up being a rather hilarious day, due to us being a bit overly assumptive. We planned on cycling from Hoi An north up to Hue, about 100km or so – a long day of riding for sure. We got a bit of a late start, due to both the desire to sleep in and needing to pick up some last-minute tailored clothes. Oh, and it kept pouring rain, so loud it awoke us even before the alarm went off. But the weather managed to cooperate, so around 11am we finally took off, riding along the coastal road as we were advised. The beaches between Hoi An and Danang were recently mangled by a storm, so they certainly didn't look very nice, with displaced sand, top-less palm-trees, and damaged buildings everywhere. But the ride was nice enough, and as we skirted Danang and headed up into the hills, an enormous Buddha statue, along with dark skies, beckoned us onwards.

There was lots of road construction, and the hills were steep, so after a while we stopped for some lunch, finding a nice restaurant down by the ocean. The seafood was great, and very affordable since it was not a Westernized place. Refueled, we continued to ride along the coast, curving along the hilly road. Then disaster struck: the road ended, amidst piles of rocks and trucks moving dirt...
Apparently we'd missed a turn just past Danang, which would have taken us back to the main highway and onward to Hue. But, given how late it had gotten, going any further was foolish, so we backtracked the 11km we'd ridden past Danang, thankfully now mostly downhill, though we weren't able to beat the down-pouring rain. Cycling through the entire area outside of town took a while in itself, and there ended up being a total lack of hotels. So we headed towards the city center, the big building towering over everything serving as an easy landmark. While riding across the Song Han bridge, the monsoon finally arrived in full force, conveniently within one kilometer of the main hotel district. So we got soaked, had a bit of a hassle finding an affordable hotel, but ended up at the funnily named Golden Gate II, dripping water all over their floors despite our best efforts.
Now we're just relaxing, in our fourth floor hotel room, the corner office with a view over some of the soggy streets, as the rain continues to pour down relentlessly. We'll try for Hue again tomorrow, should be about 60km now, and we'll make sure to ask for directions a bit more frequently this time around!

Hope you are less wet than we are,

Here's your moment of zen, the contents of Liz's fully loaded handlebar bag:

Sunday, October 11, 2009

It's been a few days, evidently, since there's oodles of things to update you all on.

We arrived in Dalat, a former French hill station town set up in Vietnam's Central Highlands, late in the day after numerous hours on the bus from Saigon. The cool air was a delightful contrast to the Asian heat we've grown oh-so-adjusted to over the past months, perhaps explaining our good mood despite the long ride. Dalat is a sprawling town, with rambling roads, so we were still adjusting our bearings when a hotel tout approached. Maybe it was because he was the only option and we weren't sure where we were going anyways, though his excellent English probably didn't hurt either, but we decided his $5/person rooms were at least worth a look. Thankfully, given the high hill we had to ascend, The Pink House proved quite nice indeed, and so that's where we spent the next few nights.
Our first day was pretty much a wash, literally, since our sleeping in combined with the monsoon rains to cover pretty much the whole day. But at least we managed to locate a tasty vegetarian restaurant, much to Luke's delight.

Take Two, the next morning, proved slightly more successful as we managed to see both Bao Dai's mansion and Hang Nga Crazy House.

Funny names for sure, but BD was a former Emperor, and the Crazy House, built by the daughter of a former president, was certainly aptly named. The highlight of the former was the regal costumes for rent – though why Anderson's was so short will be an eternal mystery.

The latter, also a functioning hotel, had plenty of gaudy kitsch and concrete to satisfy the apparent needs of domestic tourists while bewildering we foreign folk. Then the rain came again, pounding us into a nearby bakery for lunch.
A very nice thing about Vietnam is the abundant bakeries. Vietnamese food is a tad simple: rice, noodles, or noodle soup (the ubiquitous pho) are the mainstays, but thanks to baked goods being so common there are also sandwich shops on almost every street corner. We have the French to thank (about time that happened about something :-), since they brought baguettes and croissants here, amongst other tasty morsels. This particular bakery also had a full restaurant, including relative rarities such as 'macaroni & cheese' and a very small 'hamburger.'

Throw in some above-average fruit shakes, and we had a veritable culinary party despite (or rather because) of the bad weather.
That night, everyone but Anderson (we all lame out sometimes) went out to see our hotel manager sing at a local bar, before trying it ourselves at a local karaoke bar.

The next morning, after our third great breakfast at a local restaurant, we began the longest day of cycling we've ever attempted. From Dalat to Nha Trang is almost 140km, with plenty of hellish terrain along the way. We knew it was going to be a long and challenging day, but it exceeded our expectations by quite a bit. The first 60km were all uphill, grueling and relentless with very few downhills for respite. Four hours later, exhausted (but not sweating thanks to the cool air temperature) but elated, we'd managed to pedal our way up into the clouds. Literally, they flew by us on the road, moving briskly at such a high elevation - Dalat itself is 1500 meters, and we certainly went MUCH higher than that...
Then came the best part of our day, though it came and went all too quickly. Thirty kilometers, straight downhill, with our sight initially blocked by the clouds:

As we came around yet another curve, we finally looked out onto the vast expanse of hills, all lower than ourselves.

We continued to wind ourselves off the mountain, and though it took only 45 minutes of actual cycling (whizzing downwards at at least 35km/hr, twice our average speed), we stopped plenty of times to photograph the numerous waterfalls and other natural beauty.

Five hours after leaving Dalat we finally found a restaurant for lunch, though there had been a few stalls selling ancient beverages and other sketchy products, no proper food had actually been available. Despite a complicated ordering process, rice hadn't tasted so good in a while!
The third part of the epic journey proved arguably the most taxing, since our weary legs were once again exposed to uphill inclines, now smaller but numerous, and though we were on the “new road” it was apparently not yet completed since sections of it were under construction or just dirt. But, we fought onwards, and eleven hours after leaving Dalat we finally pulled up in Nha Trang, practically delirious, and not just with pride. Hotel and dinner were acquired quickly, as was sleep.

Nha Trang's sights were taken in quickly: the beach was alright but lacked waves, the water-park was closed until the weekend, the microbrewery's beer was all fruity and lacked full-bodied flavor, the 12th century Cham Towers were small but interesting (and in use, always a bonus when visiting a temple), the mud-bath was soothing but somewhat pricey ($5/person for 15-minutes in the mud and then 20 minutes soaking in hot water), and our snorkeling/party-boat was very fun and very cheap.
The in-water wine-party was over-the-top (and clearly enjoyable), lunch was tasty, the boat even had a band, and though the snorkeling equipment was shoddy the fish and coral were numerous and interesting. We even got to play volleyball on an island, after we paid the 10,000 Dong admission fee, of course.

After three nights in Nha Trang we were ready to leave, however Blaise had (wisely in his case) succumbed to temptation and decided to enroll in Octopus Diving's four-day PADI certification course. Can't blame the guy, great price for a great experience, with a professional company, just not what we wanted to do. Christine also decided to linger longer in Nha Trang, charmed by its beaches. So ourselves and Luke have set out on a mini cycling adventure, from Nha Trang to Quy Nhon. Since our two stops along the way, Van Gia and Chi Thanh, haven't had readily available internet access, this can't get posted until we actually reach our destination. Chi Thanh technically has internet, our hotel's wi-fi is just frustratingly unable to connect, and all the internet cafes were overflowing with adolescent gamers so there was no room for a bunch of old-timers like us who want to check their email.
It's fun being totally off the tourist trail, although it means that there is little to do other than ride as much as we can each day. Yesterday we attempted to locate some hot springs shown on our map, but after backtracking several kilometers, getting conflicting directions, and then finally being taken to a pipe “from a factory” squirting out scalding hot water, we'd had enough and continued on our journey, amazed at how tough a language barrier can be sometimes. Everyone seemed to know of the hot springs, just not where they actually were!
Continuing on, a long day of riding ended with us relaxing in a nice, quiet hotel, having completed our third 100km+ day on the trip. We had a great dinner at a family-run restaurant with two kindly owners, found some tasty packaged snacks at a general store, and then were escorted to our hotel by about 30 young boys on bicycles. All the boys were having fun, it was Saturday night after all, and this town probably doesn't get too many foreigners. They used their limited English on us, gave Liz a ride on the back-seat of one of their bicycles, and enthusiastically posed for photos with us. A nice ending to a long day!
Today we rode about 75 more kilometers to get to Quy Nhon, of which the second half had some beautiful beach scenery (though everything we've seen scenery-wise since we left Nha Trang has been nice and beachy), and our final destination supposedly has some Western food, which we're intrigued to try! We've found a nice hotel, though not quite in time since we got rained upon, but we've met back up with Christine and are all relaxing in our room, showering and catching up.

More news with less waiting soon, we promise, DRAGONS & KARAOKE videos and photos will be up soon - can only squeeze so much multimedia into one post :-)
A&E+L+C (B will meet up with us in Hoi An)

And now for your moments of zen, much-anticipated and much-deserved:

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Fresh article up on Travelfish, all about the town of Battambang, Cambodia, the bamboo train that runs there, and the effects of The Lonely Planet on cultural tourism.

Hope you like the article, will have a new post up soon about what all has happened over the past few days... here's a hint though: dragons and hills :-)


Saturday, October 03, 2009

We chose to extend our stay in HCMC/Saigon, and by doing so we've also decided to extend our Vietnam visas (at a later, and more convenient, date). Now with only 15 days left on our visa, 7 more places we want to visit, plus the desire to cycle a decent amount of the country (including some of the Ho Chi Minh trail), and extension is essentially mandatory. Nha Trang, Danang, Hoi An, Hue, Hanoi, Halang Bay, and Sapa all sound too interesting to skip. Extending, probably for between a week and ten days (we'll get another 30 day visa but won't use it all), won't negatively effect our overall time schedule, it'll just push our Thailand entry date back a bit from the planned date of November 18th, though that assumes we spend our full month in Laos... and that is WAY too far off for us to figure out right now! Sorting out one country is complicated enough, never-mind two, but we've got to juggle everything to make sure we see and do all that we can, while not sacrificing riding time, but also keeping our focus to be back in Thailand “on time” so that we can get to the southern beaches for a little while before returning to America around December 10th.
Right now we're on a seven-hour (maybe?) bus ride to Dalat, a so-called hill station in the central highlands of Vietnam. Our stay there will be short, probably only a day, and then we'll take off through, and hopefully mostly down, the surrounding hills to get to Nha Trang on the coast. We're even with the clouds right now, though the pounding rain only lasted a little while. Unlike the heat of the Mekong Delta and surrounds, it's quite cool and comfortable here in the hills.

Back in HCMC, we wrapped our time there by retrieving our bicycles, fixed up quite nicely for only 100,000 Dong ($5), plus another 200,000 Dong for four new brake pads. We'll probably destroy these new brakes when we cycle out of the hills, but at least it'll be fun ruining them. As for our daytrip outside the city, both our destinations were pretty interesting.

The Cao Dai Holy See was a unique religious experience, combining traditional Vietnamese music and song with a mixture of eastern and western religions.

The architecture was colorful and gaudy, most everyone was dressed in white,

and a gallery upstairs was designated for the large amount of camera-clutching tourists, ourselves obviously included.

The ceremony was certainly the focus, the slight carnival atmosphere not quite interfering with the serious chants and prayer.

The Cu Chi Tunnels were also pretty unusual, the former Viet Cong stronghold from which Saigon was ultimately toppled. 200 km of tunnels lie underground, although only small sections are maintained for tourism. They are dark and small (though still enlarged for Western visitors), definitely claustrophobic, and at times painful to navigate since our bodies weren't exactly designed for awkward crouch-walking.
Around the tunnels are plenty of kitschy displays, some simply morbid traps, and even a somewhat pricey shooting range.

Luke was daring enough to explore an authentic and completely dark tunnel, while the rest of us were content with only the somewhat lighted and expanded main tunnel.

Those traps, numbering about ten, were gruesome and designed to maim and kill invading American soldiers.

It was strange being an American tourist in a place so plainly anti-American, yet the conflict of capitalism versus communism that provoked the Vietnam War seems almost hilarious when capitalist Western visitors make up the bulk of the tourists visiting the preserved tunnels of communist resistance fighters. Plus, of course, Vietnam is still technically a Socialist state, though it really appears that the average Vietnamese person is much more a capitalist than the government wants to concede. Presumably the north will be much more socialist than the south, we'll let you know when we get there...

But speaking of government propaganda and terrible atrocities, what of the War Remnants Museum? The ride there was certainly entertaining, though slow since we took cycle-shaws, and out front were plenty of captured American military equipment.

Inside were mostly photo galleries, dedicated to war victims and Agent Orange victims alike, making for a most sobering mood. Something about bloodied young soldiers and mutated even younger children puts a bit of a damper on things. But we be seekers of knowledge, even when learning it is unpleasant, and it was good to have a different perspective, from what we hurriedly learned back in high school, put on the Vietnam War.


Some moments of zen for ya: