Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Random Motorcycle Adventure in Vietnam Leads Tourists to a "Death Party"

By Micah Spangler
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Ben Tre province - Mekong Delta
The idling motorcycle wobbled as I climbed aboard, my arms desperately clutching at the waist of the stranger now only centimeters from my face. I eyed Caroline anxiously as her driver started his bike.

“My name is Diamond,” Caroline’s driver yelled at us, attempting to drown out the rumble of the passing Saigon traffic with his slow, practiced English. “OK, we go to Mekong Delta now!” he shouted.

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Blue boats in the rivers of the Mekong Delta (Photo: Getty Images)
The bikes lurched into action as our drivers weaved their way onto the busy street. A kaleidoscope of colors sped past us, echoing against my helmet’s visor until the lights and sights of the city were miles behind.

Caroline and I had met two days earlier on a bus ride back from Cu Chi – a vast network of Viet Cong tunnels that are part of the common Ho Chi Minh City backpacker route. The tunnels turned out to be a huge tourist trap, complete with cartoonish mannequin soldiers and tacky, overpriced souvenirs.

“Do you want to see the real Vietnam?” Caroline asked me, as I vented out loud that the trip had been a waste of a good afternoon.


“Then I have a plan,” she said.

Caroline unfolded a ripped piece of paper with a Vietnamese phone number scrawled across it. “This guy, Diamond, offered to take me on a motorcycling southern Vietnam trip! He can take you too. We can go together.”

“Diamond?” I asked incredulously. The name – and the do-it-yourself business card – didn’t exactly scream reliability. Caroline looked at the number and then at me and sighed, “I want to go, but not alone. Come with me?”

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Beware of the smelly durian. So pretty … so noxious. (Photo: Micah Spangler)
Over the next two days, Caroline and I took an exploring Mekong Delta trip with Diamond and his uncle, perched on the back of their twin motorcycles like two infants in a high-speed BabyBjörn. We visited a local floating village and then a family farm with fields full of Asia’s most noxious fruit, the pungent durian. We snuck into an upscale Western-styled resort, where Diamond knew a security guard, then cooked shrimp on a homemade grill while passing around a bottle of banana seed whiskey – a strong, tart bottle of booze I had never seen before or since.

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The writer never would have visited this floating village without his motorcycle guide. (Photo: Micah Spangler)
Properly plied with Vietnamese liquor, we ended the day halfway to our destination in a sleepy village somewhere in the Ben Tre province, where the Vietnam War is commonly considered to have officially begun in 1959.

“Do you want to get a beer?” Caroline asked.

“Yeah, of course.”

The streets of Ben Tre were dark and quiet. After crisscrossing half a dozen blocks, we finally found an open restaurant.

The patio was packed shoulder-to-shoulder with chain-smoking patrons, white bandanas wrapped tightly around their foreheads. A trio of musicians was crammed into one corner, sending a wave of live music over the crowd. Behind the tables, large wreaths leaned against the bare brick wall, adorned with balloons and ribbons.

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Ben Tre musicians (Photo:Jos Dielis/Flickr)
Caroline and I quickly sat down at the only two open seats at a table close to the street. Less than a minute later, a little girl tapped us on the shoulder and motioned for us to follow her. We shuffled passed the crowd, returning the diners’ awkward smiles and nods until we reached a large table at the back. At the table’s head sat a plump man with a smile seemingly superglued to his face. He shooed away two of his seated guests and offered us their chairs, slapping us on the back as we sat.

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Fruit plate (Photo: Getty Images)
Almost immediately, another girl emerged from the kitchen and placed a pile of fresh fruit and sweets in front of us. The crowded table looked at us like biologists examining specimens of a long-extinct race, waiting for us to eat. We dug in.

Not one of them spoke English, and I was convinced that even if I was fluent in Vietnamese, I’d have trouble communicating. The man to my right poured a plastic water bottle into a shot glass. He flapped his arms to get my attention and then stared at me straight in the eye as he tossed back the shot, careful to leave it half full. He handed the glass to me and smiled wider.

I examined it playfully, bringing the shot to my nose. The booze was as clear as water but reeked of diesel. I swallowed it in one gulp and slammed the glass on the table. The crowd cheered, and each of the men followed suit, individually taking their turn to share a drink with me.

Finally, at the behest of our accidental host, a little boy began translating for us.

“What is this?” I asked the boy. “Looks like a party. A birthday party?” I guessed, eyeing the balloons and homemade streamers.

“Um … kind of.” The boy said, clearly eager but nervous about conversing with a native English speaker. “It’s a … a … death party.”

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A scene from a Vietnamese Death Party (Photo: Micah Spangler)
Caroline and I both let out a gasp. “This is for his mother’s death,” he continued, pointing to the man nodding back and forth, signaling that even though he didn’t understand us, he knew what was being said. “She died one year ago today. We remember her.”

I was shocked and saddened, but I couldn’t help but think this was a much better way to remember a loved one, rather than the gloomy memorial and a cold cut combo that was all too common in the States.

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Incense burning (Photo: VivianDNGuyen/Flickr)
As we continued on, the man invited us inside to light a stick of incense and place it in front of a large framed picture of his mother. Turning to finally leave, he gave us both a big hug and began to cry.

“He says come back whenever you want,” the boy translated.

The next morning, we climbed aboard our motorbikes and sped passed a twisted corner. To my amazement, the “death party” was still in full swing, the band thumping their instruments like it was its first set.

From across the street, I caught our host’s glazed gaze once again – his face redder and puffier than the night before, but his smile two times wider. He waved both arms at me, jumping up and down. I waved back until he was out of sight; the vacant, open road the only hint he was ever there at all.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Cycling in Hoian - the charming ancient town

By Anner
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Today, after a lengthy breakfast at the resort, we decided to take a cycling Hoian trip around the town.  We set off along the river, stopping periodically for pictures or shopping.

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Maddie and Akaya on bikes
At this point, we had gone five minutes, and in 88 degree heat with 89% humidity, we were all drenched in sweat. So we stopped at one of the many little stores, and all bought conical hats. I went with a simple design, though they did have ones that said, stitched in Vietnamese, “Hoi An- I’m a tourist.”

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Buying tourist-y conicals hats
Along the way, we passed many rice fields, bridges, and decorated streets. We stopped for sugar cane juice, pressed fresh, and sat down while various people came over and tried to sell us things. This time, though, they actually succeeded, selling cards with pop-out pictures of things like boats, flowers, and characters. 

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Rice paddy fields
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Dad looking out
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Fish nets
After some time we stopped for lunch right on the river, and I learned all about Vietnamese customs. First off, if someone invites you somewhere, it’s considered very important. It creates a sense of community and friendship, and is not something you can be careless about. Also, it is customary for the youngest woman to wipe off all the chopsticks for each guest at the table, and for the oldest woman to look over the bill at the end of the meal. Also, splitting the check is seen as very rude, similar to buying a gift for someone and then asking them to pay for part of it.

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Lunch on the river
As for the meal itself, we all trusted Dad to pick out some good dishes. None of us are really well-versed in either Vietnamese or finding out which menu items actually translate into good food. We ended up with grilled squid, lemongrass chicken, rice, garlic spinach, and probably some other seafood items that I’m forgetting. Everything was, of course, family style, a custom that I always am familiar with.

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After lunch, we headed back to the resort, ready to embark on our next three tasks before going out again for our Hoian travel: chilling, relaxing, and resting (my dads own words, surprise surprise).

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Beautiful views

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Hanoi to Sapa by motorbike - Our memorable travel

By Kia Ora Vietnam
The road from Hanoi to Sapa winds its way for 670 kms into the northwest of Vietnam, towards the border with Laos and China. Together with our friend Rachel and her Vietnamese friend Do, we took a motorcycling northwestern Vietnam trip and set off on a 4 day ride to Sapa. After relaxing for 2 days in Sapa we returned by overnight train to Hanoi.

The scenery is possibly the most spectacular in Vietnam, and the journey provides many opportunities to see something of the lives and colourful costumes of the many ethnic minorities of Vietnam.

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Day 1. Hanoi - Mai Chau
(150 kms, 5 hours)

After the first hour riding out of Hanoi amongst all the traffic, and getting used to a different bike, it was a pleasure to reach quieter traffic and settle into a rhythm. It was nice to see green fields again, but nothing spectacular until we crossed over the mountain pass and descended into the beautiful Mai Chau valley which is home to predominantly Black Thai minority people. On the recommendation of Richard, fellow teacher (and the person who inspired us to undertake this journey) we stayed the night at a Guesthouse in Lac Village, just out of Mai Chau. Facilities were basic but comfortable, the hospitality very good, and the environment absolutely fantastic. We immediately decided that we’ll be returning for a longer stay before too long.

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Day 2. Mai Chau – Son La – Tuan Giao
(265 kms, 9 hours)

From Mai Chau onwards, the traffic became less, and the scenery and ethnic minority villages more spectacular. Children started waving and calling out “hello” as we rode by, and stopping for a drink or meal became an opportunity to meet the local people. Having Do with us enhanced the experience as he could interpret for us.

After the standard 2-lane roads we had travelled, the road into Son La was a bazaar 8 kms of 6-lane highway with essentially no traffic except for the occasional wandering buffalo. I think they must be anticipating some future development!

From Son La the road narrowed as we climbed over several mountain passes, eventually arriving at the otherwise unspectacular town of Tuan Giao, with just one Hotel, where we stayed the night.

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Day 3. Tuan Giao - Lai Chau   
(90 kms, 5 hours)

We started the day with breakfast at an eclectic café where we ended up drinking tea with the owners in their home. The direct road to Lai Chau is the last part of highway 16 (highway is somewhat of a misnomer) which was once sealed, but a very long time ago. The road was rough, and included a number of river crossings. On these rough roads the Minsk’s really came into their own with good suspension and soft seats.

Travel was slow, but it enabled us to take in the sights and be welcomed by the Black Thai and White Thai villagers along the way. It has to be said that the further you get from the beaten track, the more interesting the sights, and the more open and friendly the people are.

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Day 4. Lai Chau – Sapa
(165 kms – 6 hours)

The road follows the river valleys for much of the way, and once again whenever we stopped we had wonderful experiences meeting the local ethnic minority people, including a wonderful half hour spent with some Miao people.

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The last part of the journey was a steady climb up past Fansipan (the highest mountain in Vietnam at 3,143 metres), and the weather was noticeably cooler as we approached Sapa (1,650 metres). Today we experienced the only wet weather of our journey, but this only lasted for a brief 20 minutes.

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Day 5. Sapa

After passing through so many ethnic villages which see relatively few foreigners, the development and tourist nature of Sapa was a marked difference. We simply took the opportunity to relax after the previous 4 days of travel.
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We last visited Sapa in January 2003 – being winter the fields were bare, and the weather extremely cold. This time, however, the terraced rice fields surrounding Sapa were a magnificent green. This truly is a beautiful part of the country.

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Day 6. Sapa – Lao Cai – Pho Lu - Hanoi

On our previous visit to Sapa the road down from Sapa to Lao Cai was unsealed, and hundreds of manual workers were toiling to rebuild the road. The result is that now this 35km stretch is one of the smoothest roads of the whole journey.

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Unfortunately the railway line approaching Lao Cai had been damaged by landslides, so we had to ride an extra 35kms to Pho Lu where we were able to put the bikes onto the overnight train to Hanoi.

It seemed all too soon that our short Vietnam motorcycling travel was over, but it must rate as one of the best road trips we have done for a long time

Monday, August 25, 2014

Halong Bay: The Most Beautiful Place in the World

By Vicky 
Halong Bay is one of the most beautiful places in the world, there’s no doubt about it. I booked a kayaking Halong tour there when I was in Vietnam for two weeks in August. To be honest, I didn’t know that much about the place beforehand but somehow had heard it was awesome and so decided to check it out. I’m glad I did. It was 5 hours from Hanoi, but worth every minute of the journey. Just a short boat ride out and we were greeted by these huge limestone karsts just scattered in the bay. Apparently there are thousands of them, but we must’ve only seen a small per cent during our time there.

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The smaller boat took us out to this the ‘Surprising Cave’. As soon as I step foot in the place I was amazed – I didn’t realise then how huge the cave was. It was exciting for me to come across on a guided tour, imagine being the person to discover this place all those years ago?!

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It was so hot and humid in there – note the lack of piccies of me here – I was a sweaty mess. The ground was slippy too, a few times I slipped off the path. If you’re going investigating places like this on holiday you need to make sure your travel insurance covers any sort of adventure activity, even if you have to pay a premium on it. Just check with your provider if you’re in any doubt, but do make sure. As long as you stick to the signposted walkways, and can walk steadily you’ll be fine but there’ll always be that one person who decides they want to go and explore further. Don’t be that person.

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The way they’d lit the Cave of Wonders up just made it all the more incredible. Stalagmites and stalactites were everywhere but the cave was so huge it never felt claustrophobic.

They took us kayaking tour on the second day morning – if you’ve ever kayaked before could you let me know how you steer the ruddy thing in the direction you want it to go? I was hopeless.

Kayaking Halong bay

We stopped to swim at the beach and there was a pathway to climb the limestone and look out over the bay, this was the incredible view.

Beautiful Halong Bay

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Motorcycle Chronicles - Northwest Vietnam - Sapa

By Brian Keels
Jacob and I started our 800 km epic motorcycling northwestern Vietnam on a 5 day loop through the rugged mountains and countryside.  What started out as one of the greatest experiences of my life, it's definitely an experience I'll never forget.  We planned to visit an old French hill station high in the mountains in a town called Sapa which lies near the Chinese border as well as several other interesting towns along the way.  

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We explored Sapa by motorbike and ended up picking a place high up on a hill (with an awesome balcony) overlooking the cartoon-like emerald green valley.  $10 a night between the two of us for a ridiculous view, free internet, and clean sheets -- what more can one ask!  Many of the people around Sapa are Hmong, which is an ethnic minority that I believe originated in Mongolia, but over time were pushed further and further south into Vietnam, Laos, China, and Thailand.   The town really has an out of this world feeling.  The Hmong men wear navy blue French pettycoats with popped collars and silver bands around their necks. Women wear traditional clothing which they make themselves from hemp and dye with local indigo.  They are a truly 'ethnic' looking people and those involved in tourism speak excellent English.  

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We hired a tour guide to take us on a trekking Sapa tritp through the local Hmong villages and the countryside.  The views were almost beyond what I can describe.  It was the kind of thing that sent chills down your spine.  The entire mountain was a network of terraced rice fields framed by impossibly steep peaks .  Again, I don't think I can even put into words how beautiful the scenery is and I am convinced there is no other place like this in the world. It's as if the scenery was digitally enhanced by some computer nerd and you're sitting in a movie theatre with 3D glasses just soaking it in.   Words really can't describe the place or the feeling, but see the pictures for yourself and just know that pictures can't even do the place justice.

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During our time in Sapa, we met a lot of the Hmong women as they were selling handmade hemp clothes, bags, etc. They would all come up and with broken English say "You buy from me?!". It was funny because it was all ages (from 4yrs to 85yrs old), and they would say the same thing. I assume that tourism must be their main source of income, aside from the old days of opium cultivation

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The next day Jake and I spent time exploring the town and checking out the local markets, which had some interesting hand made souvenirs we bought.  Realizing that we needed to get on with our trip, we left early the next morning for what turned out to be a 10 hour test of endurance.  We drove through every type of terrain imaginable: mud, gravel, potholes, washed out sections due to small rivers crossing the road or because of rock slides, dusty back roads, you name it.  The weather varied nearly as much as the terrain: rain, cold, and fog turned to radiating heat and humidity.   We were literally in the middle of nowhere and due to some major construction on a new highway, we were forced to take all the back roads through small and remote villages. 

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The hard work was completely worth it though because the scenery was even more impressive than Thailand and Laos with continuous views of the mountains and rice terraces that constantly gave us goose pimples. The elements and construction work slowed us down a lot, and although we tried to make good time we didn't make it to our stop in Dien Bien Phu (the famous site where the Vietnamese won a decisive battle that ousted the French) until 8:30pm. When we arrived we were both covered from head to toe with mud and backcountry Vietnamese dust. To say the least we slept good that night!

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That next morning we got on the road early in anticipation for another long-haul day.  The views again were absolutely stunning.  

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I am probably a good 2 weeks behind on the blog, but will do my best to catch up...for some reason I can't access the blog site.  Stay tuned.

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