Central Highlands-part 2

Such nice teeth!

At the first village of Kotu people we fell in love with a baby monkey and these ladies were really impressed with our white teeth. They thought Kye should do toothbrush commercials on TV. They did not speak Vietnamese so a younger woman translated for our guides, who translated for us. It was a really enjoyable visit. I love it when people allow me take their photos, but don’t try to pose.

On the second day we happened on a special event happening in the village of M’nonc Lam. The men were drunk and singing while a water-buffalo bull was decorated and tied up. Apparently, he was soon to be killed and eaten. We were invited to stay, but it would have been an all day affair, so had to leave after a couple of hours. I felt like a National Geographic photographer catching a scene like this:

Our tour ended in the southern city Dalat, which is the favorite city of all Vietnamese people because it is higher in elevation which gives it a cooler climate. Flowers and berries and other fruits are grown here that do not grow elsewhere in the country. It is also a favorite honeymoon location. We spent a couple days in Dalat, took a bus to the beach town of Na Trang for 2 nights and then back up to Danang.

We had another week together in Danang and Hoi An. He spent a few days exploring Ho Chi Minh City before flying home to the US. It would have been a wonderful trip on my own, but doing it with my son made it so much more. I think it may rate as my favorite travel adventure ever.

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Central Highlands motorbike trip with my son

Traveling with my grown son, yes!

I have one son and lucky for me, he’s awesome. Near the end of my time teaching in Vietnam, Kye (27 at the time) came to visit and seek adventure with me for about 3 weeks. We spent the first week in the Danang area seeing some sights together. He also went out exploring and meeting people on his own. The second week I had arranged a motorbike trip with a couple of Easy Riders (see below). We spent the days, each on the back of our guides Trong and Hy’s bikes.

Starting in Danang on a Saturday morning we rode inland to Kham Due and then continued south down the Ho Chi Minh Highway which roughly follows the infamous Ho Chi Minh trail used during the war. It is a two-lane road that runs north-south on the western side of the country. It was in good shape, except when occasionally it wasn’t. There were no tourist buses and the only other westerners we saw were on motorbikes, like us. Here’s some pics of my fabulously talented and good-looking son:

Travel Tip:Easy Riders are individuals and groups of men who give 1 day or longer tours on the back of their bikes. Most bikes in VN are just 100cc, the Easy Riders usually have 150’s that are all tricked out to look and sound like bigger bikes. Some cities have very organized groups with websites; they all claim to be the original group. Many of these guys speak several languages. Some got their English skills working with American’VNwKYEs during the war, which they paid dearly for, but are now able use to their advantage. I had great luck using Easy Riders in several cities, but like always, take the time to talk and research before making any deals.

Over the next days we stopped at 2 or 3 hill tribe villages a day. We made frequent stops at waterfalls, cafes, and nice views that were obviously places that our guides always stop. We also stopped at anything interesting that was happening along the road, like people harvesting or drying their crops. Trong always asked questions and translated for us, which really added to the experience. We were able to make connections with people on an hourly basis rather than just zipping by everything.

A couple of our night’s accommodations were fine, while one was pretty awful. We were traveling to some areas that foreigners have to have permits to be in (the guides take care of this) and all hotels in VN have to be registered to accept foreigners. So in a couple of these small cities like Buon Ma Thuot they are the only ones registered and there are so few tourists that they can give you a crappy room, cause you are stuck with them.

Aside from my back side getting really sore, by the end of the journey, that was my only complaint. We saw such beautiful sights; from magnificent waterfalls coming out of the jungle, coffee and tea plantations to small farms and villages. Absolutely magnificent views were seen all the way along the trail. We were invited into villages and homes. More stories and photos in the next post…

Sapa Trek

Sapa’s OK

DSC00682The town of Sapa has a reputation of being annoying and touristy so I wasn’t expecting to like it very much. While it’s true that you get hustled on the street quite a bit by some sad characters and some of the restaurants and shops are overpriced and absurd, I found a lot to like about it. The streets are steep and views are amazing. I liked shopping in the market and found some fabulous hemp, indigo textiles in one of the shops.

Travel Tip: The fine art of ignoring touts. If your going to travel in the developing world you have to learn how to deal with the hustling touts and beggars. You need to find your own comfort level. My strategy is to make as little contact as possible, say no a lot and keep moving. That being said, I do occasionally break that rule when someone is particularly clever and I am in the mood, which sometimes leads to a fun exchange if you can get them to drop the sales pitch. I never buy from children, as they are often being watched and “worked” by others rather than going to school (I do give them food, however).

Sapa Sisters rock!

I had arranged my 3 day trek on line, through Sapa Sisters (sapasisters.com) ahead of time. They are the only Black H’mong, woman owned, trekking company in Sapa. Their guides get paid much more than other local guides who are paid very poorly. Most visitors go in groups, but I was able to go one-on-one with my guide. Zao came dressed in her (nearly black) indigo long vest, traditional jewelry  and modern sneakers to get me in the morning and off we went. I had stored my luggage with the hotel and carried just a day pack.

DSC00686 I was 50 years old, so following a 17 year old H’mong girl was like trying to keep up with a smart, cute, young goat. Zao was bright, enthusiastic and spent her days taking people from all over the world up and down the hilly trails of her homeland. Her English was excellent and I thought she was doing a great job of navigating between two extremely different worlds.

We had such a good time trekking up and around rice paddies, she telling me stories of her life and traditions. Early on, she asked if I minded if we went to her cousins wedding, I of course was thrilled. The second day we hiked up a narrow, steep and muddy path to a Black H’mong home where we ate and drank and toasted the newlyweds.

Nights were spent in home-stays where a good meal, shower and clean beds with mosquito netting were provided. Everywhere we walked was beautiful, everywhere we stopped was fascinating. Most of the villages were Black H’mong, but not all. We also saw some Red D’zao and others I’m afraid I didn’t write down. I love the Red D’zao women. They shave their eyebrows and hairline; they wear large, red head wraps and fabulous pants.DSC00734 Sorry, you’ll have to take my word on the pants.

One of my other favorite sites was when we came upon a woman rinsing her hemp, indigo fabric in a stream. The rhythmic sounds of her washing in the stream and the wind through the tree’s mingled with Zao and her friend chatting quietly in their native tongue created a sweet symphony.

Sapa trekking is exhausting

I’d had a sore throat when we started and I probably should have gotten some antibiotics as I likely had strep throat. After keeping up with my young guide my legs were sorer than they have ever been. By the time I got back, I was a wreck. But, I was also exceptionally happy. I had such a great adventure I didn’t care about how much pain I was in. Zao and I got together in the next two days before I left, for a couple of meals and to visit her families market shop. We have kept in touch on facebook and I will be forever grateful for our adventure together.

Side note: During my initial SE Asia travels I had started a children’s book called Elephants Cry and So Do I. Over the next few years I worked on it off and on, but had set it aside for too long. You might not believe this, but my main character (a young elephant) was named Zao. I took meeting my new friend Zao as a serendipitous message from the universe to finish the story and have been working on it ever since. You can check it out here at starquestpress.com. Thank you Zao!

Bac Ha Sunday market

Loving Bac Ha

The next day was the market in Bac Ha, the little city that I loved even more, the longer I stayed. This market had more for tourists than yesterdays Can Lao market, but was still a simple place with most of the commerce happening between local people. I got rather obsessed with the beauty of the women and girls and their costumes, in particular their leg wrappings. Most of them did not mind my taking photos. (I never take a photo if someone indicates they do not want me to.)

Since I was staying right near the market I could spend the entire day going from one area to the next and back again. I could stop and try some food, bargain for some items and wander about. The smells were rich and pungent the sight varied and exciting.

I had a good time buying items for my store. It is a rewarding challenge to pick out some items you like and then bargain with people who may not share any language. I find a note pad, a calculator and a calm, willing attitude work well.

Travel Tip: A good way to start bargaining is to inquire about the same item from a few people to get the price range for what is being asked and then thinking ahead what you might be willing to pay (often 40-60% less than original asking price). In most cultures it is considered impolite to start bargaining if you do not intend to buy the item. That does not mean you cannot walk away if you don’t get a price you are satisfied with, but it is uncool to talk down multiple vendors and not buy. When bargaining, people can get quite animated and dramatic, which is great, but stay calm and in good humor. Inexperienced shoppers sometimes get flustered and agitated which is unfortunate cause it can be a lot of fun. If a vendor is really aggressive or annoying, just walk away as there is almost always a better deal somewhere else.

I spent the whole day wandering the market and nearby streets. One of my favorite, but very simple meals I had, was multicolored sticky rice served on a leaf with some salty, ground peanuts as a garnish. I loved the gal and her friend that served it to me and sat with them for a while.

My favorite market, ever!

The town of Lao Cai

The night train from Hanoi to Lao Cai is very pleasant and inexpensive so one can splurge and get a simple, yet comfortable berth to sleep in.  I arrived in the chilly dark, before dawn where the other travelers got onto a bus for Sapa.  I however, was heading the opposite direction to Bac Ha, in hopes of experiencing a couple of lesser known market days that I had researched ahead of time. I finally found the local bus going that way and was one of the first ones aboard. The next two hours were the classic scene of more and more people, wares, livestock, and supplies being loaded in, tied onto and piled on top of the old bus. I was the only westerner, and I was excited to start seeing some of the hill tribe people in their traditional dress. It was a long steep ride, with lots of stops that allowed me to just sit and observe life in that neighborhood.

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Bac Ha is a small city of about 50,000 and is the capital area of the Flower H’mong people.  I found a decent place to stay with friendly staff and really liked everything about the place. There were not very many westerners around so we had the tendency to stop and chat with each other and frequently share meals. There were men on horse drawn, wooden wagons that added a nice touch to the visual appeal of the place.

The market of Can Lao (the favorite one)

One of the staff at the hotel agreed to take me on his motorbike to the Saturday market in Can Lao for a good price. We had to get up early and drive through the chilly morning fog. When we got there it was all I had hoped for and more.

It was a market by the local people for the local people selling and trading of new fabrics, older textiles, bags, herbs, meat and produce. The ground was rough, the smoke of cooking fires wafted through the air and bright colors of the Flower H’mong people were everywhere. The livestock included water buffalo, horses, chickens, pigs and dogs. There was an area above, under the trees where a variety of birds in lovely bamboo cages were being sold, for what purpose I do not know.

The people were either friendly or ignored me, the vibe was very pleasant. I enjoyed myself so very much and there were only a handful of other westerners there. My guide showed me around and explained some things, but also let me wander freely. On the way home we just missed a rock slide and had to wait a couple of hours for the road to be cleared.

Other villages and homes

We stopped at a couple of villages and my guide took me right into a few peoples homes. I was worried about being intrusive, but everyone was very gracious and welcoming.  I drank a little rice whiskey with some very inebriated young people in one village. Don’t worry, I wasn’t drinking with these youngsters below.

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Over all, it was one of my favorite travel days ever. I bought a few things for the store I’d had at the time, tried some new foods (couldn’t tell you what they were tho) and had a peak into another rich and fascinating world.

Faces of SaPa

Hill tribe villages of SaPa area

Sapa is a small city in northern-most Vietnam surrounded by many hill tribe villages. It is a 10 hour night-train ride from Hanoi and can be socked in by cloudy, wet weather much of the year. All the while I lived in Vietnam, I wanted to visit the area, but my time off and the seasons never agreed. When I visited in 2012, I made it a priority to make the trip.

This was one of my favorite travel adventures ever, so I am going to cover the highlights in the next 3 posts. Here’s my basic itinerary for the week I spent in the area:

  • Took night train from Hanoi to Lao Cai at the Chinese border, arrived just before dawn.
  • Found a local bus to Bac Ha, spent 2 nights.
  • Hired motor bike guide to Can Lao for a remote, very local market day.
  • Market in Bac Ha the next day.
  • Bus to Sapa
  • Left next day for 3 day trek with my guide Zao.
  • Returned to Sapa, with sore throat and barely able to walk from achy muscles, but so very happy with my adventure.
  • Train back to Hanoi to recuperate at my friend Linda’s lovely home.

I took a lot of photos and I will share them as the story unfolds.

Above are a few of my favorite faces from the hill tribe people.  They are Flower H’mong, Black H’mong and Red Dzao ethnic minorities. I promise to tell you more about them in the upcoming posts.

Moving to Danang

Danang has jobs beaches

After spending a week exploring Hanoi at the completion of my teacher training, I took the train down to Danang.  I loved the city of Hanoi, but I knew that the noise and bustle would really bother me at some point. I need fresh air and wilder places to explore in order to be happy. Besides, don’t most of our living and working in a foreign country fantasies include a beach? I know mine did. The thing is though, that to get paid teaching ESL you need to be in a city. So with a wing and a prayer I landed in the beach city of Danang, said to be 1 million people, but does not feel nearly that large.

Below is a youtube video I found of a nice tour around the city:

I had a pre-arranged interview with the Apollo school there and had a job with in a week. My first home was a hotel along the river, which was walking distance to the Han Market, the expat hangout Bamboo Bar and nice mix of cafes and restaurants. There was a lot to take in as I started my teaching career in this very foreign and fascinating country.

My new co-workers were Brit, Aussie, Scottish, Dutch, American and Canadian. Most with more experience and a couple newbies like me. All very amicable and eager to help each other with school issues as well as getting settled into life in Danang. Several of them are still teaching, most of us have stayed in touch via Facebook.

My new family

In my search for a place to live, I found a room in the home of a young Vietnamese family. Phuoc (pronounced almost exactly like the F-bomb), his wife Nam, their toddler daughter SuSu and Nam’s sister Lien would soon become my Vietnamese family. I had a huge room with 2 beds, lots of windows, and a beautiful bathroom. All this for about $200 and just a few blocks from the beach. Nam loved to feed me so I had quite a few of my meals with them. I was their first foreign border (it is now their main business) and we had a great time learning about each others lives. Nam and Lien now speak English well, but then it was pretty basic so we had to do a lot of miming and looking up words for each other.

IMG_4253Phuoc is an americanophile with a vast collection of rock-n-roll music. Just an overall enthusiastic, a bit atypical, Vietnamese man. Among other things, he taught me how to ride a motor bike safely in Vietnam. They had a party every month or so that would be a mix of Vietnamese and expats. Nam is known for her cooking and would make things like seafood-curry-stew in a coconut. Yum! I taught young SuSu some English with flash cards and songs. She is a smart girl who now has quite a bit of English. It was a real blessing to land with this family and I will be forever grateful. The photo above is the family and I at KFC. There is very little American fast food (very refreshing to my mind) in Vietnam, except for KFC, so it’s kind of a big deal.

Travel Tip: Don’t worry about not knowing the native language. There are so many people who speak at least a little English in the world. However when they don’t, you just have to get creative with gestures, drawings or what ever else you can come up with to get your point across. I am no wiz at languages, but I do find it easy and fun to learn numbers and greeting and food names in the first days and weeks in a new country.  Most people love to help you, so if you try the numbers and get help from your hotel staff, taxi driver, or any friendly person you see more than once, they will enjoy investing their time in helping you with language or anything else that might come up.

Further adventures

So far, I have written this blog chronologically. We’ve witnessed my journey from heartbreak in America (2008), to adventure in SE Asia (2009) and we’ve landed in Danang Vietnam (2010). In 2012 I traveled back for a month long visit to Bangkok and Vietnam. From here on out I will write a variety of adventures and stories as I am inspired, no longer chronological.

Christmas Epiphany

From hard work to holidays

Teacher training ended just days before Christmas. There was a strange crop of Santa suits for sale hanging all over the old quarter. Instead of being red and white they were red, white and yellow. I assumed this is because the Vietnamese flag colors are red and yellow, so being a popular color theme in the country.

Santa suits for sale in Hanoi

Santa suits for sale in Hanoi

While most Vietnamese practice a variety of folk religions, about 16% are Buddhist and 8% are Christian (mostly Catholic, mostly in the south). When I asked my Vietnamese friends at my hotel what happened on Christmas. They replied, not very much, that sometimes they dress up and drive around to see the churches and the beautiful decorations. Business is not closed, but Christian people celebrate it more.

Come Christmas eve, I had a nice sit-down dinner with the staff and other guests at my hotel. It was a mix of Vietnamese cuisine as well as french fries and not very good wine.  I helped in the kitchen with the springs rolls, letting the staff have a laugh at my inexperience.

Travel tip: always say yes to any task or event when invited.  Be humble and allow your local acquaintances to have a laugh at your expense. Laughter and teasing are great friendship builders.

The busy street I lived on was even busier than usual, thick with people on their motorbikes. Every so often someone would be in one of the Santa suits that had been for sale the week before, mostly men, one woman and several adorable babies.  I had blast stopping people for a photo; the mood was celebratory and sweet.

Guess I’m going to church

There are a few beautiful old cathedrals in Hanoi, one of the more famous ones was just a few blocks away, so I thought why not join the noisy throngs and see what was happening there. When I arrived the crowd around the majestic cathedral was thick with hundreds of local people waiting to get in. I was just there to see what I could see and unconcerned with actually getting into the church (I’m not Catholic).  However, the crowd kept opening up in front of me and I was being gently ushered to the door. Because I was a westerner, they assumed I was meant to be there, and were eager to assist.

Once in, it was near the end of Mass. The attendees appeared to be about half Vietnamese and half foreigners. The Priest spoke in English, with a very strong accent. The choir sang some hymns in English and some in Vietnamese. The final “Hymn” was Jingle Bells. Every one was all smiles and warm greetings as the service ended. It was a truly joyful worship.

Then the doors were opened to the public that was patiently waiting outside. The non-Catholic locals filed in with total reverence and respect that such a church deserves. I myself was in awe.

I thought, how amazing if people of different religions could all be so warmly and innocently curious of others spiritual practices. What if Muslims, Jews and Christians all welcomed and all visited each other’s places of worship on their holy days just because it is beautiful?

Learning to Teach English in Hanoi

CELTA Training

I chose a CELTA accreditation for teaching English as a second language (ESL) because it is the highest level of its kind and is accepted all over the world. It is moderated by Cambridge University. You have to apply and have a skype interview, they only accept you if they think you can succeed. In my research I learned that it is a very challenging course that will take every ounce of your energy for the full month that it tIMG_3698akes to complete it. Those reviews were true. You start teaching on the very first day and the work load is intense. It’s also a lot of fun.  My class-mates were from all over the world and our students were eager, young locals that pay a deposit that is fully reimbursed, only if they complete the class.

 

I chose to do it in Hanoi, because wherever you do your training you can end up with some local connections and Vietnam was where I’d decided to start. That turned out to be a good strategy as I was able to land a job in Danang just 2 weeks after earning my CELTA. I took the training with, and later worked for, Apollo English. http://teachatapollo.com/IMG_3700

The days were full of lecture, tests, practice teaching and weekly papers due. Lunch break was fun, going out and finding new or favorite lunch spots. There was the tofu lady on the street, chicken at a very busy upstairs place and my favorite spring rolls, bahn mi and pho. You have to try hard to spend more than $2 on lunch in Vietnam.

After class, I would walk home via a bakery that had some delicious treats. My favorite were these perfect, tiny, just made eclairs. I’d have one and save a couple as reward for after homework was completed. I frequently had to work until I could not keep my eyes open any more to finish assignments and teaching plans. For the whole month I really only had about 1/2 of Sundays that I could just relax. Any more than a month would have been impossible, however it was rewarding time well spent.

The Students

One of the best things about teaching in Vietnam was the students. Young people are very respectful of adults, and teachers in particular. Vietnamese teachers are very strict so we foreigners with our games and songs could have a lot of fun with such attentive, well-behaved students. Kids go to scIMG_5428hool or tutoring all day, usually 6 days a week. I fell in love with our training students and in the pursuing months of teaching I had very few challenging students. It was so fun to get a group of teenagers to act out scenarios and practice their respective dialog in a way that most American teens would have refused to do. And all the kids love to sing!

 

ESL

If you are interested in teaching English as a second language I suggest you do a lot of research and self-education to find what might work for you. Are you already a teacher? Is this a career path or a shorter term life-experience? Do you need to get paid? What cultures do you want to explore? etc. I would suggest starting at Dave’s ESL Cafe http://www.eslcafe.com. It is full of forums, job listings, lesson ideas as well as living abroad information.

As a final note, I would say if you have the idea to try something like this, Do It! It won’t all be easy, but it will be worth it. Living and working abroad is not for the faint of heart. However, if you’ve got and adventurous spirit, an open mind and dash of tenacity, it will change your life for the better.

 

Hello Hanoi!

I arrived in Hanoi, mid November, 2009 with one week to get my bearings before my intensive teacher training started.  Hanoi is a busy, loud city full of endlessly interesting sights. I rented a cheap room in a hotel with a restaurant below which turned out to be a nice place to eat many of my meals and become friends with the staff for the month that I would reside there. It was located in the old quarter, just 2 blocks from Hoan Kiem Lake.

Turns out Hanoi can get a bit chilly in the winter. Like so many places in the world that are too hot most of the year, there are not a lot of heaters for when it does get cold. I had to go out and buy a couple of sweaters (at a couple of bucks each) and I searched out the cafes that had a heater or fireplace and served hot chocolate. The less chilly days were perfect.

Zen and the Art of Crossing the Street

You may have heard about the traffic in Vietnam being absolute chaos.  Well it is and it isn’t. Later in Danang, I had my own motorbike and really got the hang of it. It is just entirely different and counter intuitive to the western mind. Anyone’s first days in the country will terrify and confound them when trying to cross the street.

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The trick is that you have to stay slow and steady as you step into a steady stream of hundreds of motorbikes, a variety of cars, carts, cyclos, and the occasional truck. Darting about through traffic is a sure way to cause an accident. I started by shadowing local people.  I would find someone, (the older the better cause who’s gonna run over an elder?)  I’d stand beside and a little behind them and copy step by step.  Miraculously the oncoming traffic parts around you like a river around a rock. No matter how dense the traffic, you just step in and slowly walk through it. Yikes!

 

Exercise Around the Lake

My neighborhood was awesome! I was in the old quarter, which is a maze of ancient streets still named after the specialized trade guilds they represented dating back to the 13th century.

Then in the middle of all the noise and bustle is Hoan Kiem lake (return of theIMG_3689 sword lake). It is a smallish lake with a red, walking bridge to an island temple. It is lovely to perambulate around observing people socialize and exercise at its edges. If you get up early in the morning you see individuals and groups doing their exercise of choice. Everything from ladies with elegant red fans to loud step aerobics classes and men with rusty old weight sets pumping iron just inches from traffic.

 

The teacher training was demanding so the walk to and from by the lake (with a stop to stretch) was a lovely respite and a peek into the daily lives of the people of Hanoi.

 

 The Food!

The street food in Hanoi is so interesting and delicious.  I never had spring rolls as good again, even in other parts of the country. In restaurants there is lots of local flair to check out, excellent French pastries and other delights from around the world.

One of the best everyday items is Bahn Mi.  For less than a dollar you get the most delicious sandwich on fresh baked baguette. I have yet to find the equivalent flavors anywhere in the US. One great reason to go back for a visit.

Travel Tip: People ask me about eating street food and getting sick in foreign countries.  Here is my personal, entirely unscientific, theory.  If you are from another country you are going to lack immunity to some of the microbes in the food and water. You will likely get a funny tummy from time to time. Paying attention to what looks clean and what other people are or are not eating (a busy place is a good sign) is a good practice. I know for certain that I have gotten sick from a fancy restaurant as well as street food and that really uptight people still get sick. Street food is so damn good, I am not going to miss out on it. So I say: be attentive, but don’t miss out on the local good stuff wherever you are.