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Vietnam: Mekong River Delta

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Well, our Mekong river cruise rolled around right when I was starting to feel better, and also when Larry came down with whatever I got. No amount of talking will convince this man not to share water bottles with me, but whatever. And then I started to feel sick again too… luckily we’re both feeling better now, and our less-that-peak fitness didn’t stop us from taking advantage of the amazing 3 day/2 night cruise we went on.

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Aside from waking up early, it was actually a bit of a relief to be on the cruise while sick; none of the activities were terribly taxing, and being away from the saigon pollution and having amazing 5 course meals provided was great. So we soldiered on and got to see the mighty Mekong.

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The river itself is not especially beautiful: the 12th longest river in the world ends in this delta, and like all of the world’s grand estuaries, it is full of silt and downright brown (not exactly appealing for a nice swim, although we saw plenty of local children who, through their actions, disagreed). But the scenery around it was a beautiful jungle, and like all of vietnam, it was filled with locals living a day-to-day existence so interesting and wonderful.

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On day one, we went on a walk through the jungle, while our guide pointed out to us all the amazing foliage and explained to us what they were as well as their significance through history. For example, the Cassavia plant (it looks almost like a Marijuana plant but with two extra leaves on either side) which was fundamental to the locals survival during the American War. Agent orange gas and bombs were used as defoliants, destroying all plant life with the goal of giving American pilots a better view of the ground. Cassavia roots survived, providing the Vietnamese with food when all other plants could not. Cassavia root is used in so many things, most notably in the creation of tapioca! I never knew this. We also ate it in a few of our on-ship meals, and it was delicious. We were shown Durian fruits the size of human heads (by far the biggest fruit I’ve ever seen) as well as mangosteen, passionfruit, drangonfruit, lychee, and these tiny little red berries that tasted EXACTLY like Berry Berry Kix. Like, exactly! They were so sweet and good, after being hesitant to even eat one, we kept pulling down branches to grab as many ripe ones as we could reach. It was an amazing walk.

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We also got to see a Cao Dai temple on this walk. This religion exists exclusively in vietnam: it’s a mixture of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. The founder of it (rightly) thought that all of these religions contained a core truth, and lamented the fact that each of their prophets was only around to influence a small group of people in a certain time. So he thought to combine the inherently human parts of each into the Cao Dai religion. It has a home for the monks as well as a temple where the locals come four times per day to pray: 6 and 11 o’clock in the mornings and evenings. Very cool, and a beautiful building.

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The next morning we took a small boat into the town of Can Tho to see a traditional rice noodle factory (let me tell you, when we hear “factory” we imagine a big metal building with smoke stacks and an assembly line- SO not the case!) Even though most of the rice noodles in Vietnam (and elsewhere) today DO come from more modern factories, there are still some traditional ways to make them in the Mekong that are still going strong. We got to walk into the thatched-roof hut to watch the process of combining fine rice floor, cassavia (tapioca), and water to make rice paper and then shred it into fine noodles. Very cool. Larry and I even ate a few fresh samples raw and crunchy, much to the chagrin of all the German and Irish people that were on the tour with us 😉
That afternoon we had the choice to either participate in a cooking class on the boat or go on another jungle walk, but we both passed out. Hey, we were sick and we needed it!
We met a really cool Irish couple who was adventuring through South East Asia for their honeymoon. They had assigned seating next to us in the dining room and were such pleasant company. I got their email address, and if I ever make it to Ireland I will look then up!

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The final day was still full of fun and activities. We took a sampan boat ride through a super narrow tributary of the Mekong, with an amazing local woman rowing for us. It was a short trip but so beautiful. (You know that scene where Forrest Gump is walking neck-deep with his rifle over his head, and “Stop Children What’s That Sound” by Buffalo Springfield plays in the soundtrack? Yeah, we were THERE.)
The next stop was to a coconut candy “factory”, in a hut, where coconut milk was made into candy mixed with a million different fruit flavors.  They provided us with Jasmine tea and a sampling of their candies, which are really caramel-like, but with an exceptional flavor. They also had candied ginger, banana chips, and pop-rice candy, as well as honey and royal jelly from their bees, which I bought a small jar of (for about 1/20th the price that Whole Foods sells the stuff).
After that we took a bike ride through the city of Cai Be, and then it was back on a small boat to to the dock where we’d get on the van that would take us to Ho Chi Minh.

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Larry kept asking “who is the manager? Who is in charge?” Because he had such a good time and wanted to leave tips for everyone. But the two main boys who served as our tour guides said “nobody”. They were only about 25 years old but in charge of everything. And I mean EVERYTHING, and they did such a great job! I even left my scarf in my room on the boat (had used it as an extra blanket) and they not only put it in a plastic bag, but they knew what my luggage looked like and tied the bag to it and put our luggage on the van for us.

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Every part of the tour was flawless.
We got back to Saigon earlier tonight, checked into our same hotel, and then used our trusted TripAdvisor for another dinner recommendation. I tell you, i have not had a single less-than-spectacular meal in this country, from the cheap pho stalls in the Ben Thanh Market to the fanciest sushi restaurants- the food here is TO DIE FOR. Since trying out non-vietnamese cuisine for the first time in Saigon (Soul Burger- OH MY GOD!) the other night was great, I decided to go with pizza tonight. Sorry for the expletive, but HOLY SHIT. First of all, there’s no way I’d call Pizza 4P’s Restaurant “Italian” or even “Western”- this was Asian Fusion at it’s most artful. They make all their own cheese! Between me and Larry we got THREE appetizers, a record for the feingersh family, i think, and especially impressive considering it wad only the two of us. Prosciutto wrapped mango with passion fruit syrup (!!!!!!!!), ratatouie, and warm zucchini salad.
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Then for a main course we had a SALMON SASHIMI WITH SOUR CREAM PIZZA. Just read that last sentence to yourself a few times, and salivate. I’d never seen anything like this menu in my life. Larry was talking about inventing a teleporter so he could come to Saigon every night for dinner. That’s how good it was.
Anyway, we only have two more nights here before it’s time to head home. I can’t believe it’s gone by this fast. I’m sad to leave, Vietnam has been nothing but wonderful to me. The people are bright, beautiful, helpful and fun, the cities and the scenery have been dazzling, beautiful, and overwhelming (in the best possible way), the prices are a steal, the shopping is fantastically fun, and all the people I’ve met I’ll remember forever. But most of all this has been an absolutely priceless experience and I sincerely hope to come back some day.
My mission now is to enjoy tomorrow and Monday and take in everything i possibly can- I board my flight home late Monday night, and arrive back in Texas early Tuesday morning (since I loose 12 hours coming home).
One thing makes leaving here really easy- my precious baby Duchess, who has been pampered and spoiled by my mom in my absence. I can not WAIT to collapse on my floor and let her attack/lick me to death. Thanks for taking care of her mom, i know she loves you dearly and so do I 🙂

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PS: I spied a tank in the candy factory and immediately ran over to it and asked to hold its sole occupant: a ball python, subdued after his monthly duck. What is wrong with me? They didn’t offer this up, I ASKED. And boy was he muscular, strong, and creeeeepy. But I’m glad I held him! Quite the experience!

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Saigon

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Yeah, i got sick.

Saigon! Or, as it’s now known, Ho Chi Minh City! I don’t know what i expected but it’s blown me away with its size and modernity. Giant sky scrapers, glossy billboards for Samsung and Tiger Beer… as larry would say, “you wouldnt know they’re communist with all the free enterprise!” True, although the two are not mutually exclusive, especially since the doi moi (economic reforms) in the year of my birth, 1987. This city is go, go, go, with 9 million people and 6 million motorcycles. I read that half of all the motorcycles in the whole country are here in this one city. It doesn’t surprise me! Crossing the street takes some getting used to. You have to just go for it and walk at a normal pace; they’ll go around you. Even riding in a taxi you’re constantly aware of all the bikes and afraid of hitting one.

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Negotiating in the market

Larry and I are staying in the thick of things; our hotel is right next to the Ben Thanh marketplace, which you really have to see to believe. A million stalls selling everything from fruits, meats, live fish, places to order lunch, jewelry, knockoff handbags and watches, and all manner of souvenirs and knicknacks. The haggling is relentless, they almost always start at about double what you can end up paying if you aren’t afraid to negotiate. In other words, Larry is in heaven. We did so much shopping we had to buy an extra suitcase to take everything home (a purple Samsonite, for only $45!) And I doubt we’ll fit it all in that. But that’s a good problem to have, right? Right.

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Today we went to the War Remnants Museum, which is all about what is known here as “the American War” (why WOULD they call it “the vietnam war”? It’s not like it’s the only war they’ve fought in). People say the museum was “one sided”, but maybe because I was educated at a fairly liberal school, it fit the narrative I had always been taught of the war being especially brutal, and ultimately pointless. It didn’t totally demonize Americans, either. I was quite surprised to see a whole room dedicated to glorifying all the American opposition to the war back home (the hippie movement), including photos of American boys burning their draft cards, and stories of American soldiers who defied orders to save innocent vietnamese people. This wasn’t an “all Americans are evil” propoganda machine; in fact, I haven’t met a single local here with any animosity toward my homeland (even though I wouldn’t completely blame them if they did).
There was a whole room devoted to the effects of agent orange (dioxide gas) with pictures of people born with severe deformities that were pretty hard to look at (and uplifting as well, some of these children still had laughter on their faces, wow).

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What is it good for? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.

Tomorrow we’re going in a cruise of the Mekong delta. Larry is excited to get away from the pollution in Saigon, and I’m excited for him to quit complaining about the pollution in Saigon, hahaha). We’ll more than likely be off the grid during the next three days. After that we have a few more days in saigon until we both head back on the same flight to Houston. Duchess, mommy is coming home!

Vietnam: Full Moon Festival and Cooking Class

Wow, I love Hoi An!
Last night was spectacular. I remember reading about the full moon festival here and being dissapointed that I’d miss it by a few days; my itinerary was different before I showed up. I didn’t think I’d have time to do Ha Long Bay but I did, which pushed Hoi An back a few days to perfectly allign with the full moon!

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So much smiling!

I was walking home from dinner when I heard music and the commotion of people by the river, which explains why the main road with restaurants and shops was quieter than normal.

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Girl selling candles for the festival

Then I saw the lights, and boy you couldn’t have slapped the smile off my face! In addition to all the lanterns lit up and dangling from the trees, the river was aglow with thousands of little paper cups of candle light. Locals were selling them street side and I bought myself two, and walked down through the mud to set them adrift.

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Yesterday I signed up for a cooking class at my hotel. I wanted to do the afternoon one, but other people had signed up for the early morning one so they asked me to do that instead. However, there was a light yet steady drizzle of rain, and all the other people wussed out. Awesome– I got a private cooking class with Giang, and it was INCREDIBLE.

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First we took bikes to the Hoi An community garden, a collective that supplies veggies and herbs to the city as well as exports them to the rest of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. It was stunning, lush, and 100% natural. Crop rotation, seaweed fertilizer, and periods of leaving plots empty ensures that the soil has never eroded or lost its nutrients… in over a hundred years.

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Hoi An garden

Then we drove to the market, where Giang showed me every ingredient we would be using to cook lunch (she also helped me buy a bottle of conditioner– thank goodness, my hair has been turning into a dreadlock that breaks comb teeth).

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In the market

Once back at the hotel Giang translated for the chef who taught me to make green papaya salad, fresh summer rolls, and a tumeric-laden rice pancake filed with shrimp, pork, and bean sprouts. Easily the best meal I’ve had in Vietnam, and I made it “myself” (with help!) I can’t wait to hunt down the ingredients and try it at home. It was so fresh, AND beautiful. As Giang told me, you need lots of colors on your plate because in Vietnam “you eat with your eyes, and then with your mouth”.

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Lunch!!!

I had my final dress fitting today, and also got another (cheaper, more simple) dress made that I’m about to go pick up now.

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Putting on the finishing touches 🙂

Tomorrow I am flying first class for the first time, as there’s only one flight per day from Danang to Nha Trang, and it was the only ticket left. And I’ll get to see my dad there! So excited. He got stranded a bit at the Beijing airport, but I told him even THAT would be a cool experience and from the excitement in his voice, it’s been an airport trip he’ll never forget.
Well that’s all for now folks!

That question everyone asks.

I’m getting pretty tired of hearing, “Why are you traveling alone?” So here’s a few answers.

1. Why not?
2. I am introverted and rather enjoy my own company, is that a bad thing? (Answer: no)
3. It was either travel alone or don’t travel. Nobody wanted to do (all of) this with me, which is fine, but I’m not about to let the absence of travel companions stop ME from seeing the world…
4. I don’t have to have the “what do you want to do for dinner?” conversation with anyone but myself. This conversation is not fun at home, it’s EXTRA not-fun on a vacation.
5. Why not?!
6. I have more opportunities to get to know other travelers, which is half the fun of traveling.
7. Why not?
8. I can go wherever the wind takes me.
9. Why not?
10. And most importantly, why the heck not? If you can give me one good solid reason why I shouldn’t travel alone, I would really love to hear it (and “it isn’t safe!” is not a valid reason- there is next to NO violent crime in Vietnam, unlike in America where I could get shot in the head for being in the wrong movie theater at the wrong time). Unless you can think of a valid reason, maybe just trust that I know what’s best for myself, and I wouldnt be doing this if it made me sad or lonely or risked my safety in any way.

I’d like to think I won’t have to feild this question again, but I know I will from almost every other westerner I meet. I’m going to just start answering with “I’m not alone, I’ve got the voices in my head!” To scare them off.
Plus, I won’t be alone for much longer! My dad is landing in China as we speak, and he’s going to meet up with me in Nha Trang in a few days, which I am very excited about. He’s always wanted to see Vietnam and would most likely never have done this without me, and I’m excited to see his reaction to everything. Plus, Larry isn’t the kind of man who has ever let something as trivial as a “language barrier” impede on his good humor and sociability. This is going to be fun!

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The Japanese covered bridge in Hoi An

Vietnam: Hoi An

VietJet airlines is crazy but efficient. I thought the mexican airport was nuts but it’s nothing like this; neither culture exactly queues up, but in Mexico there’s still a general order to things and it works on a first-come-first-serve basis, whereas here there’s a lot of push-and-shove chaos at the ticketing desk. (By the way, I only keep comparing these two cultures because they’re the ones I know).

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Main street in Hoi An, very quaint and traffic-free

Anyway, I’m here in the ancient town of Hoi An now and it is so awesome. My hotel would easily go for $300 a night if it were in the states, and I’m paying about $40. The town itself is very small and quaint, and is known for a few things: great food, cheap tailors, lanterns, and being over 1000 years old (they celebrated that birthday in 2011).

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So far I can vouch for the food– its exceptional. The pho in Hanoi didn’t have many herbs with it, and here it’s the opposite: plates of chilis, basil, mint, and some leaves I can’t quite identify but happily shredded up and threw in the bowl anyway. I’ve been asking for hot chilis to put in my beer, and it takes a lot of convincing that i know what that means and won’t start crying when I drink it.

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Be Be tailors in Hoi An

I visited a tailor today to get a Halloween costume made. When I showed the seamstress a picture of the dress I wanted, I was quite surprised when she lit up and said “oh, you dragon queen! Game of throne!” She took a million measurements, let me select colors of fabric, and told me to come back in 24 hours for a fitting. (I will NOT be posting pictures of the dress, you’ll just have to wait until October if you want to see it…)

One interesting thing: people ask me where I’m from and I automatically say “Texas”, which makes the locals look at me confused, because they’re asking what country I’m from and Texas isn’t a country they’ve heard of. So I started to respond with “America”, and that confuses some people as well, as the follow-up question they ask is “what country in America?” I’ve figured this out: America is not a country, it’s a continent (at least to all the people that don’t live on it). You have to say “United States” to get the point across. If people HAVE heard of Texas, they ask me if I’m a cowboy and if I like George Bush (Ugh). Crazily enough, I just met a girl from Amsterdam who not only has been to Austin, but also went line dancing in Gruene! What a small world 🙂

Vietnam: Ha Long Bay

Limestone reminds me of home. It makes me think about the Edwards Aquifer, Natural Bridge Caverns… even the Cenotes down in Mexico, my second home. But this is different.

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After a 4 hour bus ride from Hanoi, we (from Northern Ireland, England, Australia, Israel, Luthuania, and lil ol me) arrived at a dock in the south China sea to board the 12-cabin junk boat that would take us out on a 3 day cruise of Ha Long Bay. There are a million tourist-filled junk boats dotting the horizon, with a huge range in price and quality. Luckily I was right in trusting my hotel’s recommendation; my boat, the Legacy, has way bigger cabins than any Carnival cruise I’ve been on and the food was great. We boarded, had lunch, and then immediately went Kayaking to a beach.

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The water is green and warm, with nearly 2000 (!) limestone islands jutting out of the water. It’s absolutely beautiful to see, although most of its grandeur is hidden in the caves and lagoons that you need a Kayak to properly explore.

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Pearl farm

It’s been raining here, but that didn’t change the itinerary (at first). We went on a 2 hour ‘yakin journey on the first day,  where it downpoured the entire time, drifting underneath some of the islands and around some of the others. We parked the boats at the foot of one island to walk up the steps and into a cave that put natural bridge to shame- it was absolutely massive and took about half an hour just to walk through and out the other side.

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Two cool Aussie kids

On day two, the rain picked up, but we kept at it, going on another long ‘yaking adventure and then to a pearl farm, which was very cool.

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Showing us how to harvest pearls

By the time we got back on the boat, the rain started coming in sideways, and when the thunder began the tour guides thought it best to head back. Sort of disappointing, although water sports aren’t really my thing and I’d seen as much of the bay as I wanted to. The tour set us up in a really nice hotel for the night with meals included, and I got my first proper bath in what feels like ages.

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Thai was supee fun

Tomorrow is up in the air, we’ll go back out to see one of the fishing villages on the water IF it’s not raining…. but the forecast and i both suspect that’ll be a no-go. Either way, tomorrow will be a heavy travel day for me: a 4 hour bus back to Hanoi, and then a 2 hour flight to Danang followed by a 45-minute ride into Hoi An, which I’ve heard nothing but great things about from the other travelers. It’s an ancient port city and also “the city of lanterns”, and is said to have the best food and tailors in the country. I’ll be staying there longer than any other city. I plan to get a dress made, take a day trip to Hue, and just relax.
That’s all for now, later!

Vietnam: Goodbye Sa Pa

Seriously, its been real.

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Oh how I'll miss this hotel

I’m so glad I went down into the village with Mama Su on my first day. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision, but worked out for the best because the thunderstorms rolled in over the mountains on day two. Given how caked with mud my boots were from the trek through the rice patties on a clear, sunny day (and how many times I slipped into the rice on the way back up- thanks happy water!) I was glad to take the rainy day for a little r&r at the spa.

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Beauty Spa and Salon on Fansipang in Sa Pa

And boy, I needed it! I went to bed early on my birthday and slept for a solid 12 hours. Far from being a bummer, I actually enjoy a good thunderstorm, and got to watch it out the window from the spa across the street from my hotel. For about $40 (and a generous tip) i got a mani/pedi, foot massage, head and neck massage, and even got my hair washed and dried as the water pressure at the hotel was abysmal. Then, feeling all fresh n clean, I decided to make use of my raincoat a bit and walk around the (still busy) wet streets of Sa Pa.
I ate, fillled out a ton of postcards, then stumbled across a rowdy group of Aussies to enjoy a beer with on the balcony.

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Day three was more of the same, and at about 5 pm I took one last look at the gorgeous vista before piling my stuff in a van to head back to Lao Cai and catch my night train.

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Train station in Lao Cai

I’m sitting right now at the train station, enjoying the free wifi, and passing a bottle of rice “wine” (cough, cough… LIQUOR) betwixt me and some cool kids from Poland (who find my inability to down liquor without grimacing absolutely hilarious). I’ll wake up at 5am in Hanoi and then it’s into another van to catch the junk boat in Ha Long bay. I’ll definitely be off the grid for the next few days, kayaking, swimming, and squid fishing with whoever else happens to be on that boat. So for now, chao!

28 / Birthday / Sa Pa, Vietnam

I have cried tears of joy three separate times today, pretty much doubling my lifetime tears-of-joy count. This hasn’t just been one of the best birthdays ever, it’s been one of the best days of my entire life.

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There's a frickin' RAINBOW!

I slept well on the train last night and woke up this morning in Lao Cai. Then I got into a van with a bunch of other friendly tourists (again, not a single American) to make the hour-long, hair-raising drive up into the mountains. Even before I got to my hotel I was floored by the beauty of this place, but when I actually sat down on the seventh-story balcony to enjoy a nice bowl of pho for breakfast, I started to tear up.

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I’m a pretty emotional person in every aspect of my life, but it’s not too often that I express joy so viscerally. Maybe it was a mixture of it being my birthday, which is normally a depressing day for me (to say the least), and the exhaustion that comes with traveling, but it was a positive feeling, so who cares!!

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A Hmong woman named Mama Su, who found me in the street, took me on an adventure into her daily life. First we went to the market to buy food, then down to her house (in the most beautiful valley in the world) to cook it.

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Where Mama Su buys the food she doesn't grow herself.

She made chicken (since I said that was my favorite) with mushrooms, bamboo, carrots and onions, fried in the fat from the last pig she killed, served on top of the rice her family harvested over the last year, topped with super hot thai chili peppers. After the meal she boiled water for green tea, then brought out a huge plastic bottle full of home made “rice wine”, which was insanely strong. It was more like taking shots of alcohol than drinking sake, and she laughingly called it her “happy water”.

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Mama Su can’t read or write, but she is fluent in 5 languages, and was both funny and smart as could be. I stayed with her for over four hours, talking, cooking, eating, playing with her adorable children, looking at her rice fields, pigs, chickens, and ducks. She only wanted $20 for all this, and wouldn’t even take the extra money I wanted to give her (but luckily her husband did). We talked about everything from fashion to politics, native culture, modern technology, and just told each other jokes (she loved the elephant jokes, dad!) She did up my hair in the traditional Hmong style and gave me silver braceletes to take as a gift.

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Her husband was smoking tobacco out of a hand carved water pipe, and when i showed him my e-cig he was so, so, tickled by it and asked a million questions (through Su, as he only speaks Hmong).

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When I was ready to head back to the hotel (and only because I was ready, they offered to have me stay for dinner and even spend the night with them too), she had her husband drive me back up the mountain on the back of his motorbike for free, and he even let me wear his helmet.

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Shut eyed because the future is so bright

I’ve never met such kind and hospitable people in all my life, or been exposed to such a drastically different culture than my own.
It just officially struck midnight a few hours ago on my birthday in the US, and the Facebook messages have started rolling in. I miss everyone back home, but honestly there’s nowhere in the world I’d rather be than where I am right now. This has been a truly magical day; that it was my birthday too just made it even more so.

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View from the valley on mama su's porch

I’ll leave with this. Mama Su and the other Hmong women who come to town to find tourists carry around little notebooks that people can write recommendations in, if they enjoyed themselves. I wrote my honest feelings down and then I said “Mama Su! The next time you see an English speaker, PLEASE show them my page first!” She said she would, but because she doesn’t know how to read she wouldn’t be able to find it. So I drew a heart at the top, and she had never seen a heart drawn before. I’m glad i was able to show her. ❤

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Oh, and one LAST thing. They had PUPPIES!!!

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Is this really only my third full day in this county? Wow…