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…

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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!

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?

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.

IMG_3956

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.