November 7th-16th

• We left Vietnam from Hanoi on November 7th. After waiting 5 hours at the bus station (because of the incorrect advice from our guesthouse) we started our 13 hour ride to the border town Dien Bien Phu. This was to be followed by getting immediately onto a 5:30am bus for 7 hours to the Laos border and then to a transfer town called Muang Khua. At Muang Khua we would walk the 3 kilometers with backpacks to the bus station which, after a 3 hour journey through winding dirt roads, would lead us to our destination of Udomxai. The highlight of the journey was that apparently our dinner was included in the price of our first ticket. So when we stopped at a rest stop we were told to sit with four others, a Vietnamese family. The daughter smiled and scooped rice for me. She then followed that with pantomiming for me to try the dish in front of her by rubbing her stomach. I tried the intestines, she laughed in return. Meanwhile her father and uncle, both in full military uniform, had offered me a shot of rice wine…and then six more. The rest of the ride, well, I don’t remember so well.

• Udomxai was a jumping point to Luang Nam Tha, an NPA (National Protected Area) with supposedly great hiking. We thought we would have the chance to see Black Asiatic Bears, elephants, or ligers. We were disappointed to find out that it was unlikely to see any animals without doing expensive 4+ day hiking trips. We opted instead for our own free 14 kilometer walk through stilted thatched villages to a waterfall. We bolted down to Luang Prabang the next day.

• Luang Prabang is an UNESCO World Heritage City. With its old French architecture, flourishing temples and location between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers it’s easy to lose yourself in its beauty. Unfortunately, as it seems with UNESCO protected cities and the catering towards package tourism it spawns dilutes the city’s charm. In spite of that though, the city still speaks to us and we’ve been finding our way through it to the things we think of as its gems. The nearby Kuangxi waterfalls are beautiful, producing turquoise blue pools that seem almost unnatural. The Hmong night market houses a food alley where a vegetarian buffet goes for about sixty cents. And today, Mari and I volunteered at a local English teaching program called Big Brother Mouse. Mari worked with a 21 year old man who was trying to learn English so that he wouldn’t have to be part of the family business as a farmer. He reminded us how much Luang Prabang, and it’s bubble directed towards wealthy foreigners, is not reflective of the average living conditions in Laos by mentioning in conversation practice that he didn’t know if he liked eating at restaurants, since he had never been to one before. For my couple of hours of volunteering, I was matched up with a young man who took me to an internet café because he wanted me to help him communicate with a doctor he had met here before…through Facebook of all things. We spent the whole time setting up his account, posting a picture to his profile, and sending out his 1 friend request. In the end, he thanked me and asked if I would be his second friend. Something tells me he’s getting the hang of it.

Posted: November 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Laos | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Frozen Feeding Frenzy

Banana….Strawberry….Pistachio….Salted Caramel….Coffee Chocolate…Mint….Vanilla Macadamia….Stracciatella….Chocolate Chili…Lime….Strawberry sorbet…Tutti Frutti…Pineapple…Vanilla….Mocha…Rum Raisin…Banana (again)….Vanilla Macadamia (again)…Strawberry (again)….Chocolate Chili (again)…for a total of 20 scoops of ice cream.

Still happily going to town

Still happily going to town

Not to brag (because I probably should be ashamed), but this is what I consumed in less than an hour and a half at Fanny’s First Friday of the Month All-You-Can-Eat Ice Cream Buffet in Hanoi. You should have seen my reaction yesterday when we walked by the sign. As for my ice cream appetite, Jeff said he has never felt more proud and horrified. To his own credit, he put down 16 scoops, which is fair, but he had nothing on me.

Heaven on a sign

Heaven on a sign

If not for the crowds of fellow ice cream freaks getting a little too pushy, I would have had a few more scoops. But after Jeff got shoved out of the way by a pudgy little girl on her way to the chocolate syrup fountain and my numerous attempts to muscle my way to the front of the crowd, it seemed like a good time to make our sticky exit. At $4 a piece, it was a bit of a splurge, but not a bad way to spend our last night in Vietnam.

At the counter again.  "Please sir...may I have some more?"

At the counter again.

Posted: November 6th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Back on Two Wheels

I had deluded myself that it might be possible to go through our whole trip without having to set butt on the dreaded and ubiquitous motorbike. We went through all of Indonesia and China walking past hundreds of calls of, “Wan motobai?” with me declining or ignoring each and every one. In Vietnam, I had hoped we’d manage to avoid the touts and their bikes with increasing ease. Not so.

If you know me well, then you know the details surrounding my fear of anything on two wheels. For those of you that don’t, all you need to know is that I was in a bicycle accident in college. I took the brunt of the fall with my face. The result was an eye patch, a false tooth, a couple of scars, and consequently bike-a-phobia. Sure, I can laugh about it now. Once, several years later, I was even able to hop back on a bicycle (albeit the back seat of a tandem on an empty bike path in Tahoe).

However being faced with the prospect of hopping on the back of a motorbike was no laughing matter. I had a feeling it was going to happen at some point, and the time had come. If we wanted to get to the Marble Mountains and China Beach, motorbike it would have to be. I have been observing people on motorbikes for months now. The way the passengers nonchalantly hold on to packages of all sizes, kids and babies stowed between, up to four on a bike, as the vehicles and streets and hazards fly by, where the rules of the road are that there are none. Jeff and I each had our own motorbike, complete with driver and helmet. If I didn’t already have reservations to begin with, what definitely did the trick was the fact that printed in familiar font on my driver’s helmet and bike were letters spelling out “HONGDA”. Despite the fact that my driver was really a complete stranger, I had to resist the urge to wrap my arms around his waist and hold on tight. After all, in my analysis of motorbike passengers, the only ones I’d ever seen clutching their driver were likely also dating or married to them. So, the 15-minute ride was spent with white knuckles gripping the skinny bar behind me, legs squeezing both sides of the seat and bike, and body so tense, I thought for sure I’d be sore afterwards.

Fueling doubt

Fueling doubt

Anyway, since then I have been on a motorbike three more times. It doesn’t matter that for two of those times, I had no idea a motorbike trip was involved until it was too late (once to get to the bus station and once to get to the docks-both sans helmet, and the latter trip with all my luggage!). Good thing I had one ride under my belt because who knows how many more motorbike rides lay ahead. In fact, just today we rented our own motorbike for a day trip to a national park. And despite the inexperience of my driver, at least I was able to hold on to him for dear life without shame. Jeff said that it was fun to drive and towards the end of the ride I realized that playing passenger wasn’t as terrifying anymore. It was even fun…almost.

Posted: November 4th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

Science 101

Law
Lately, connections have been coming from the realm of science. Take entropy for example. It’s the idea that closed systems move from order to chaos, from shiny to rusty. It came to me the other day when Mari looked at me, studying my face, and said, “you’re looking old these days. I guess 10 months of unrelenting sun and elements really do add up.” Ppphhhhttt went the balloon that was my self-confidence.
But it did make me think of our backpack of belongings—as closed a system as any. My clothes, each a little worse for wear every time I push them back in the bag, have long ceased being dirt-free let alone wrinkle free. And they in turn press hard on my toiletries, which includes my electric clippers. Back in April, Mari’s parents brought me a clipper which I was able to use on my fuzzy head once before it stopped working. I bought a second pair in Turkey which worked fine for the first 4 ½ months. However, when I took it out to cut my hair in Hawaii for my grandfather’s birthday party, I noticed that the guard had broken in my backpack. Its side had broken off, leaving no way for it to stay secured to the razor and with a portion “guard-free.” My solution to secure the guard was duct tape. I cut my hair and felt pleased with my Mcgyver-esque ingenuity. Mari saw the back of my head and thought otherwise. She managed an “um…” before trailing off. It turned out that the part of the guard that broke off was kind of important. It’s what keeps your head from having lines shaved into it. I felt like I had the LA freeway system carved into my head that night at the party.
3 weeks later in Danang, Vietnam I again took the slightly used clippers from my backpack. This time I used more duct tape. But when I turned it on, it rattled for a few seconds, and made a new noise. But I cut my hair anyway. Or at least I tried to. The clipper’s noise had been its way of telling me cut at my own peril. It conked out on me, leaving me to feel like an unfinished crop circle. As I chucked my second pair of clippers in the garbage, I thought, “ain’t entropy a bitch?”

Hypothesis
Remarkably, 10 months in and we haven’t been robbed, pickpocketed or beat up. We have the things we set out with (minus only a few things we’ve carelessly forgotten along the way), haven’t had any major health problems or other major issues. All in all, it feels like we’ve been extremely fortunate. And that’s led me to be a little reluctant to write about how we have been faring to date—for fear of our fortune changing by me jinxing it. And I surely don’t want to be the jinx, since I’m not the cause behind our good fortune. But for today, science trumps superstition.
For some time, I’ve been convinced that much of our good fortune is directly linked to Mari. She’s the equivalent of a scientific secret weapon. There’s a school of thought that says that mammals all have an instinctual affinity towards mammal babies. And because of that mammals will want to take care of them. It’s called the Biophilia Hypothesis. Think about how warm and cuddly you feel when you see kittens or puppies. Or calves or piglets for that matter. It’s the reason there are urban myths about people being left in the woods and raised by wolves, and why Tarzan was…well, Tarzan. Mari, thanks to her impish size and Asian youthfulness, seems to have fallen into a little natural selective niche with this one. Her oversized backpack only accentuates the issue.
Despite not speaking the language, local peoples love trying to communicate with her. They pat her on the head and grab her cheeks. I’ve seen men pick her up and carry her across streams and then put her down as gently as if she were being lowered into a crib. Every time we get off a bus or train, someone is helping her with her backpack. Last week the guesthouse owner, a woman actually about the same height as Mari but older looking, took Mari’s backpack for her and then held her hand to help Mari cross the street. For whatever reason, people want to baby this 31 year old woman, which has been ok with me.

***note****

12 hours after I wrote this, we lost our camera.  Way to go jinx.

Posted: November 1st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Hawaii, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Sand, Sea, and more Sand

Mui Ne was fabulous.  It’s somewhat of a resort town consisting of one long main street of restaurants and resorts, with great deals to be had at the little guest houses in between.  Most people come here for the beach, which even compared to those we’ve seen during our travels, ranks at the top.  But aside from lying around on the soft sandy shore, we took a half day trip to see some of the surrounding sights, including the White Sand Dunes, which the area is also famous for.  Who knew there was a mini Sahara in Vietnam?  For less than a buck, you can rent sleds from the local kids and give it a go.  For your entertainment, here’s a play by play of how I fared.

Me and my sled are ready to go

Me and my sled are ready to go

Posing at the top

Posing at the top

Getting a little push

Getting a little push

"Wheeeeee!!"

Zooming down the dune. These plastic sheets go fast!

Succesful first run.  The hardest part is walking back up.

Succesful first run. The hardest part is walking back up.

Off to tackle the big dune

Off to tackle the big dune

Holding on tight and trying to keep the sled straight

Holding on tight and trying to keep the sled straight

Uh oh...starting to loose control

Uh oh...starting to lose control

Taking a tumble.  That's me flat on my face....and my sled way over there.  *Picture slightly out of focus because Jeff was laughing so hard

Taking a tumble. That's me flat on my face and my sled...way over there.

Posted: October 20th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments »