Monday, January 14, 2008

c'est finit

Oh man. Vietnam seems so close and so far now that Ryan and I have made it back into the US of A. This was our parting shot as we taxied into Tan Son Nhut airport in Saigon. We enjoyed all the hilarious mispellings and phrases and this was one of them, "well-wishers gallery". What a formal name for an area where your friends and family come to see you off.
It's amazing how quickly we reintegrated back into 'normal' American life, whatever that is. Getting back in touch with friends, spending time with family, figuring out a way to move up to Seattle (we're in Fremont now). And, not really having adventures per se to write about in a blog anymore. How sad. But thanks to all of you who have hung out, read some funny stories, bad grammar and wished us well. Hopefully in a distant adventure in the future, we'll have a chance to do this again.

May there be laughter, good food, and good times in 2008. And here's an international phrase you can use when you next quaff your next beer: mot, hai, ba, yo!

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

cold vietnam!

It feels like Christmastime, a week late. In the central highlands for the last week of our journey, we were greeted with cool breezes on the bus followed by a frigid night in our hotel, about 55 degrees or so. That sounds warm even to my ears, but after the hot and humid lowlands, we had to break out every piece of warm clothing we had. This is the coldest time of year, and the residents here wear parkas and beanies (or toques and toboggans for you crazy types) to keep their heads warm. The scenery is a bizarre amalgam of tropical plants, evergreen trees, and lush farmland that grows - famous to Dalat - strawberries, artichokes and coffee.
It makes me realize how much I enjoy a temperate climate - my energy level went way up after feeling some cool air. Beyond the climate, we're also a fan of this city's appreciation for coffee. After all, Vietnam is the second largest producer of coffee and the majority is grown right in the central highlands. Due to the French colonial presence, there is a bizarre Eiffel Tower complete with Vietnam communist flag flying atop it in the center of town, and lots of cafes underneath it to enjoy their ca phe. We've heard from people who know that Vietnamese coffee is usually second grade - the quality is good, but farmers currently pick overripe and unripe beans to maximize their yield. We also observed families drying their beans in front of their yards, driving motorbikes through them, family dogs walking over them, children playing in them. This can't possibly be good for quality, though maybe this is standard operating procedure?
Someone has also told us of a delicacy somewhere in Vietnam where coffeebeans are fed to captive foxes, who pass them whole. Apparently the fox's digestive tract does something chemically to the beans to result in superior taste. Yeah, think I'll pass.

Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Years!

Since we just had our new years celebrations about 15-18 hours before all of you (and even a couple of minutes early according to my watch) I'm here to tell you that the future is looking pretty good so far. It started with a passable cup of coffee and a pretty good bowl of pho.

Last night's new year's party was definitely the most intense we've ever been to. There was a huuuuge bonfire, some unskilled fire dancers (one woman accidentally threw half of her fire stick into the ocean and proceeded to, unsuccessfully, look for it for about half an hour), girls dressed in skimpy costumes, guys dressed like total wankers, a bad DJ spinning house music, etc. We only felt slighty lame as we sat on our beach blanket, in the same clothes we've been wearing for two months, sipped at our drinks, and left shortly after midnight. No buckets of liquor for us. No thank you.

We hope that you all have a good night tonight and that you're level of drunkeness is exactly as you'd like it to be. See you in '08! Only 7 days left in Viet Nam...

Friday, December 28, 2007

and now into 2008

Yep. I never thought that I would sink to the low of an asian brothel, though the night started innocently enough with a beer and a snack on the street with some nice folks (above). I maintain that it was most awkward for me, as a woman, to be stuck in that situation, though Ryan disagrees with me. We eventually heard from Richard, the Aussie, and were relieved to find out that he was not kidnapped by pimps, bled (too) dry for money, and still in one piece. He was a bit cryptic about what ended up happening after he left, but frankly, I don't want to know. We just had coffee with him in Mui Ne, where we've spent time already. Apparently we had the same brilliant idea as everybody else to spend New Year's on the beach, and were barely able to find a room.

As Richard already said, I had a few too many Saigons in Saigon (the south's watery beer), and have been feeling pretty homesick. A bout of traveller's diarreah hasn't helped, though I'm psyching myself up for new years on the beach. Richard told us about a cool party at a windsurfing club just down the beach. We are going to spend a ridiculous sum of money to be there - $15, gasp!

Before we left Saigon, we took a cooking class to learn some dishes we can cook back at home. Like many Vietnamese tourist outfits, this one was a bit sketchy, and eager to get as much money from us as it could. We also had a class full of wankers - certifiable. A greek professor who either had ears full of wax or an incapacity for following directions never understood what ingredients he had to put into his spring rolls, fish claypot, etc. etc. His greek wife who was such a picky eater that she asked for most of the ingredients to be omitted that she didn't like. No fish sauce, no fried garlic, no tamarind sauce. I think she just made plain rice noodles. Another greek guy, a restaurant owner, had to videotape everything while trying to make food, and also take cell phone calls to talk idly about his vacation, while the class waited for him. We sort of learned some cooking techniques, but mostly just got treated like kindergartners, complete with a graduation ceremony at the end. However, we're excited to try outsome dishes for all of you back home, so hopefully you'llbe understanding, considering the level of instruction we received.

Here's a pic of Ryan fishing for aquarium fish on Phu Quoc. He is wearing his Korean boyscout shirt that he found in a street stall. For some reason, everyone in Vietnam finds this funny, and Ryan gets numerous cries of 'korea, hahaha!' as we walk down the street, especially in Saigon. Happy New Year everybody! Since we experience it first,we'll send good vibes across the world and hope you enjoy yours!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

No photos

How do I even begin to describe what happened to us last night...?

We went on a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels yesterday near SaiGon with a small tour group. After many deeply disturbing pro-war anti-american comments in a video about the American War, we were lead through some of the very tiny tunnels and shown the booby traps and secret entrances. We crawled along underground for 100 meters or so and had some really funny photos of me sliding into one of the entrances and crawling on our hands and knees - but, alas, we managed to leave our camera in the bus when we got back to SaiGon. We realized this about 5 minutes after getting off of the bus and ran as quickly as we were able to the tour company. They called their driver and he assured us that there was no camera on the bus. Luckily we had uploaded our photos the previous day so we didn't lose more than 20 or 30 pictures. Either way, our camera is probably being sold on some street corner this morning and, if the rest of our story hadn't taken place, we might have had the energy to look for it.

Back at the tour office we ran into an Aussie who was on our tour having a beer with our tour guide, a Vietnamese man named "Joey." The story of this nickname is long and uninteresting, but suffice to say that he was an early 40's man who managed to weave random American sayings (Tomorrow never come, die another day...) and homophobic comments (Michael Jackson is three dollar bill...) into most sentences. After joining Joey and a half dozen of his friends for 3 or 4 or 5 beers and Peking duck, we were invited to go to Karaoke with them all. We had a few more beers, sang Abba songs and a drunk Vietnamese man tried to grope Audrey as he very aggressively danced with her.

Up to his point we were drunk and happy, but as people left the club Joey took the three of us along to what sounded like another dance club. What we thought was a club ended up being a brothel. Yes, we were led through a locked gate, up a dark flight of stairs into a large room with a huge wrap around couch. The lights dimmed and we couldn't believe our eyes as 15-20 scantily clad girls walked into the room and poured our beers. We'd been hearing about Joey's wife and eleven year old son all day! Auds and I couldn't just leave - we wanted to watch out for our new friend Richard who seemed just as uncomfortable as we did. Joey picked out a girl for Richard and kept telling Audrey to let me have a girl. He chose two for himself and two for another friend of his. Would they leave the room at some point? Were people about to start getting down as we sipped on our beers? We had no idea what was happening now, but Joey kept telling us to "be cool." Audrey was asked to chat with one of Joey's girls as he groped her chest (she is 28, born 4 hours from SaiGon, doesn't like her job, is trying to learn better English, etc...). Things went on like this for an hour. We drank our beers, talked, asked if we should leave, felt really really uncomfortable and, thankfully, no one did anything. We just wanted out of there, but as we got up to leave Joey told us to wait for the bill. We were expected to pay for... something. Apparently Joey expected Richard, Audrey, and I to pay about eighty bucks for the pleasure of sitting and drinking beers in the company of these women. We hadn't really expected to be paying prostitutes and only had eight or ten dollars on us. I can't emphasize enough how out of our element we were. We didn't want to leave Richard alone; he was much more drunk that us and we doubted that he'd be able to make it to his hotel. We weren't exactly sober, had no idea where in the city we were, wanted desperately to get out of there, but felt like we couldn't. We ended up giving Richard the money that we had with the promise to pay back to him anything more that we owed. I guess that he ended up staying with Joey and the girls. As we left, I told him to meet us at a nearby coffee shop at 11 this morning - which is right now. I'd better head over there to get the rest of the story. Updates to follow...

It was definitely the strangest night we spent in Viet Nam, and the most uncomfortable. Anyway, it was by far the most memorable night of our trip... so far. I don't think that I can come close to accurately conveying all of it through my wicked hangover.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

kidnapped by phu quoc

Heads still hurting a little from last night's goodbye celebration, Ryan and I are back on the mainland. We were planning on leaving two days ago, but the island lady seduced us into staying for another couple. We got to check out the pepper groves (apparently Viet Nam is the biggest exporter of peppercorns and grow mostly in Phu Quoc), fish sauce factories (stank!), chase tropical fish through the coral reefs and play with the puppies of the indigenous dogs. You can tell the dogs that are native because they have a distinctive line of hair that grows up their back. If I wasn't worried about testing the limit of my parents' hospitality when we return to stay with them for a month or two, one of these little guys would definitely have stowed away in my pack.

Ryan also enjoyed the services of the massage ladies that aggressively hawk their services, almost to the point of throwing you onto their mats. They insisted that we should come back next year with two babies, and also to cut Ryan's toenails. This they did for free which proves just how bad they thought his talons were.

We befriended Hans from Holland and his wife Linh from Vietnam who barbecued the best seafood ever on the beach and sold very fun alcoholic beverages that came in fruity containers (pineapples, coconuts...) They talked freely about their relationship and how barbecuing and selling drinks helps keep them afloat, along with Hans' pension from Holland - interesting arrangement. I got a chance to work on my German skills as there were many Germans there and realized how rusty I was. The whole scene was really one of international cooperation as Hans pulled out the guitar and we tried to find common ground with a singalong. Many accents roared (badly) into the night sky singing Johnny Cash, Elvis, and other 60s American rock. I am sure that the fruity drinks helped people's confidence, though they didn't make us feel so good today on the rickety fishing boat we snagged to get over to the mainland. The view from the bbq spot was amazing.

Here's Ryan checking out the phu quoc market, and a shot of our illustrious fishing vessel/ferry that somehow managed to bring us back to mainland vietnam (about 5 hrs later).

Just 2 weeks left in our trip and we can't believe we have so little time! No malaria yet though the mosquitos are vicious down here. It is Christmas eve and so far we've eaten sticky rice, been chased through the market by one of the most aggressive tour guides ever - he really was running after us, and talked to an old mechanic for South Vietnamese and American forces during the American war. This evening we go to the buddhist temples on Sam Mountain, a distinctly different experience from any Christmas eve I've ever had. Wishing we were there to give everyone a hug and roll you a spring roll!

Friday, December 14, 2007

bumpy road to paradise

We're now as south as we're gonna get, on Phu Quoc island off the southern tip of Vietnam. It is officially the most beautiful place Ryan and I have ever been. However, getting here takes considerable effort, which is probably why the place isn't a typical boring western-type resort. And did I mention that there are sunsets? We're very happy about this arrangement.
The journey south started in Can Tho, unofficial capitol of the Mekong. It was here that Ryan exercised some culinary bravado and (plug your ears mugs) ate some half developed chicken fetuses. This may not sound crazy to some who have traveled in Asia, but the whole scene was really a crackup. Walking into a clean looking restaurant that smelled good, we were confronted by a menu in Vietnamese only, and with items we hadn't seen before. Instead of trying to guess, we simply pointed at the table next to us where they were cooking up a savory soup and throwing things in. The bubbling savory broth was delicious (I picked around the chopped up bits of pig? stomach) and you could throw in noodles, lots of greens, squash blossoms, and eggs. I threw in a whole egg, just guessing, and our waitress came over about 10 minutes later to fish it out and open it, apparently we were cooking it too long. Inside was a fully formed chick, right down to the little feet. It stayed in its egglike form and Ryan motioned to fellow diners as if to ask 'so, I just pop it in my mouth?' They nodded and he threw the whole thing down the hatch, everyone watching, and retched a few times before having to spit it back in his bowl. No bueno! This elicited some thumbs down responses and laughter from our neighbors. Ryan eventually did retry and swallow his ABC fetus, but no one was watching so he couldn't redeem himself. He said that the weirdest thing was the combination of egg yolk and meat, not the little fully formed chicken parts. I abstained. And, we forgot the camera! Although perhaps not many would be interested in regurgitated food anyway...

Beyond the surprise eggs, we also took in a floating market on the mekong. I'm a food and market nerd, and I was kind of excited. Vendors flew fruit and veggie 'flags' to show what they sold. This formidable flag flew above a huge boat, apparently a one stop shop for all you could need in the world of produce:
Ryan contemplates the flag. His favorite was the melon flag.
Leaving Can Tho, we were packed into a minibus for the 3 hour ride to Rach Gia. We had the misfortune of sitting next to a sick woman who vomited and retched the entire ride. My weak stomach was maxed out, and Ryan and I kept searching through our bags trying to find empty plastic ones for this woman to fill. How so much could come out of one small woman, we haven't figured out. Our driver cared little as he laughed on his cell phone, blew cigarette smoke back into his human cargo, and careened recklessly through traffic. Everyone else adopted a particularly "dee de dee" attitude (in the words of Carlos Mencia and my mother), as she retched away beside me. It was only on leaving that we realized she had left her (very full) bags of vomit to ooze all over the floor. Awesome. From now on, we're paying attention to who brings an empty bag with them on the bus - they know in advance that they're not gonna make it.