I love the smell of coffee in the morning

Day XXXIV – April 21

Another early morning at 6.30am, I wake up under crispy white sheets in the middle bed. I’m in a 3 bunkbed hostelroom with 4 dudes snorring. My alarm wakes me, as does the bright morning shouting from outside. I swing my legs over the side and start some quick packing. I’ve gotten so routined at it that all the 14 kilos I carried out of Hanoi airport a week ago, I have ready to go in less than 10 minutes. I pay a quick visite to the bathroom and I’m on my way.

At 7 I’m back at the bus agency where once again I’m told to wait – why not just let me sleep that extra hour?!
To kill the time I try the street vendors coffee, and sweet momma why didn’t I before?! Vietnamese coffee is the best. Coffee. EVER! Why do I discover this only on the last morning?!

I get on the bus to find Harry and the Korean that was in our room, who turn out to be on the same one, as well as a latino dude I’m sure I’ve seen before… You just keep bumping in to people on the Southeast Asain Backpack track.

We’re asked by the steward to fill out a Cambodia visa form and pay $25. Sais in Lonely Planet is should be $20.
It’s then that I find out. Money is missing from my moneybelt.
A $50 note, and one of €50. I know for sure it was right there just last night, and I made very sure not to loose the bag out of my sight. Except for when I put my eyelids in between…
So it was either one of the hostel ladies or one of my roommates.
Either way, the thought is making me sick! FCK! Most likely it was someone in my room, and I can’t wrap my head around it. Why the HELL would you steal from a fellow traveller?! You know how tough things can be?! I am Jacks inflamed disappointment! Already the bus is moving and there is absolutely nothing I can do.
I guess whoever did it was sort of courteous by leaving one €50 note at least… All I can do is hope karma will serve them right. Once again I’ve been confirmed; big cities suck!

This is where it becomes so obvious again: I’m just a little girl traveling alone, and have nobody to watch over me, nobody that I actually know or can trust.
I find this one a little harder to let go than the bananasceme in Hanoi. But there’s nothing else left for me to do.

Life goes on.

Around noon we get to the border, which we have to cross by feet. Turns out the visa was $20, but the busguide assures us he wasn’t ripping us off – so what was it the $5 was for then? But I just can’t get upset over such a small amount right now.

On top of things the aircon just broke down, and the heat is smothering.

Cambodia

It’s hot and sunny and in dry shades of orange, yellow and green. And flat, too.

Another note on the eternal Saturday: sleeping in doesn’t go beyond 11 o’clock. Due to check-out, or just the day being too hot by then. And most of all: there’s too much fun to be had to waist your time lying around in bed, better spend it snoozing in the shade or a hammock.
I wonder how much of that is going to change over these next 2 weeks when I’ll be volunteering, with a steady alarm and regularity introduced into my days. It will be so nice not to have to pack for such a long time!

When we get to Phnom Penh I’m left with the Korean, who’s also continuing to Siem Reap. Our connection just left, so we have to wait 4 hours for our connecting bus. I have to give it to those Aussies, the ride from Saigon to Siem Reap takes well over 16 hours.
No, today is not the best of days.
pp menu
We set out to find a not-too-expensive airconned bar, and end up in an icecream parlor where I find broodje bal and kroket on the menu, typical Dutch fastfood. Makes me laugh and sad at the same time.

Afterwards we go for a walk around and look for this park I found on the map, but upon asking a local, hear it’s been overbuilt.
This town doesn’t strike us that charming either…

I’ve been on the lookout for a blond tuktuk driver, but I guess Levi didn’t make it out this far yet. Or maybe he hasn’t bought his tuktuk yet… He was most serious about buying one to go pick up his friends who were coming over to Phnom Pehn.

sky over ppSplotta splotta splotta! The dark grey sky is breaking over Phnom Penh as I settle into yet another crowded bus at 6pm, and it’s completely dark before we’re out of the city.
The downpour doesn’t stop all night, all the way from one to the other side of the country. The massive rain is accompanied by the most amazing lightning I have ever seen. More than to the ground, the fulminations are thrown between layers of clouds, creeping out in flowers spreading over the entire sky, like the fireworks they save for the end of the show.
In the mean time the telly’s been tuned to this show that reminds me of those 70’s dance-alongs, sound over the speakers; no sleep till Siem Reap.

We get there around midnight, and I get the promised tuktuk to make up for the 4 hour delay in Phnom Penh. He takes me to Garden Village Guesthouse, the one that everyone’s been talking about. But at the gate I’m told they’re full.
He tells me he knows another hostel, and takes me to No Problem Guesthouse, one that does have vacancy and a dorm.
Weirdest place I’ve been in so far; a Beach-like crapshack with ceiling fans in a dirty dorm and no bathroom. Just after I lie down, a local (?) walks in to fall flat on his face on an empty bed –no sign of life follows- minutes before the boy that checked me in and his girlfriend come in… How nice it would be if I could just pass out now.
But I’ve lost my fatigue, and I still haven’t heard from Green Lion, so there’s that to worry about.

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Boring busdays pt 2

bus ticketNext destination:
Ho Chi Minh City population: ± 9 million

Day XXXIII – April 20

I get off one bus in Na Trang at 6am, the next leaves one and a half hour later.

As I sit on the curb waiting between the high yellow buildings, a man named Duc, a South Vietnamese army veteran, comes rolling over in his chair to make some small talk and sell his postcards. He thanks me for the Dutch invention of his hand driven wheels. I buy his cards. “I like you,” he says, “thank you.” It’s a bittersweet encounter under the burning early morning sun.
I don’t know enough of the conflict to know how to handle this situation. Then again, if you weren’t right in the middle of the conflict, how much do you ever know?

Vietnam is expensive! * I just had to get out more dong than the 4 million that was supposed to see me through, to get my 588.000d busticket from Saigon to Siem Reap tomorrow.
Got that one taken care of now anyway.
The agency tells me it’ll be a 7.30 till 17.00; 10 hour drive. The elder Aussie couple –you‘ve got to love ye elder backpacker!- had told me they took 15 hours though. And you never know who’s right.

Too bad I forgot to take pictures of all these communist posters. Especially in Hoi An I saw so many of them! No use doing it from a moving bus now… Well, just imagine the ones from way back when, a little, but only a little less vintage but with the same message of together-we-stand-strong.

Here in my slim seat, utterly alone and forlorn I let my eyes wander. The surrounding area of Na Trang looks quite alright. Towering mountains close by on one side and beautiful beaches just on the other. This time I don’t mind skipping them though; these beaches are mostly about party party anyway.
Next we pass Mui Né, or so my neighbors tell me, and it’s just the most beautiful coastline imaginable! The harbour looks very crowded though, and it’s resorts all over the place.
By now the land has become much drier, but still the colours just pop out. It has this Mediterranean vibe about it.

Even out here on my eternal Saturday I get a little stressed from time to time. Like now; I have quite some stuff to take care of before shops close tonight;
1) get the photos needed for my Cambodian visa
2) find me a bed for tonight
3) get my reservation and pick-up in Siem Reap tomorrow arranged so I have a bed there
4) get in touch with Green Lion; they still haven’t responded to my e-mail but I’m supposed to start working with them in just a few days
5) find that same same but better shirt now I’m still in Vietnam, and maybe the just phó you shirt.

Same same
The Southeast Asia insiders joke you don’t read about in Lonely Planet or Insight Guide, the line you see on shirts EVERYWHERE; but what does it mean?
Sit told us about it on the train to Chiang Mai when Katie asked him. In full it’s same same, but different, describing ladyboys.
It originates in Thailand, but you will hear the saying it’s turned in to all the time. I don’t think the locals here even know what it’s about; but it’s a joke you can make with tourists, so they do. And once you know about it you can’t unsee it.
In Vietnam one might find the spoof same same, but better. Another spoof on the market I haven’t seen yet is it’s not the same, it’s completely fucking different!

hcmc mapBut we’re not yet near the city.
So, as I do a lot on these long bus rides, I’m quietly pleading “Please, please let’s be there soon, please!” Doesn’t make one bit of difference of course, I’m only stressing myself out more. I’d better let it go and fix my gaze at the scenery. Nothing I can change about where I am now or how fast I’m moving as long as I’m on this bus.
Maybe it also has to do with the fact that I’m so alone on that bus. But once you check in to a hostel you automatically meet new people. And I should’ve learned by now I’ll be fine, things will work out either way.
Also, it’s the most common thing for these busses to stop at seemingly random places, having locals or drivers hopping off and on, just along the highway or wherever. I’m still not entirely used to it all.

kim placeWe’re dropped at Saigons busy square 6ish. I spend half an hour finding a hostel for less than $8; Kim’s Place has a dormbed for $6 a night.
I take a shower and a moment online before I go out for a last bowl of Pho with one of my roommates, Harry from Wales. After, he takes me to where people go for drinks and sit on those plastic chairs again, having an old but stern lady serving us fresh brewskies at 7.000d a pint – almost twice as expensive as in Hoi An, but still it converses to just €0.30.

And all I checked off of my list is tonight’s bed.

Little after midnight Harry and I try finding our way back. I’m the one pointing it out while he’s not sure yet after spending several nights here. We go in and he’s convinced. But now the girl sleeping in the reception, by way of nightwatch, isn’t. We explain who we are and things are OK, and I climb under my sheets. I’m too tired to be bothered getting my moneybelt on so just leave it there next to my head and drift off.

Lesson learned:
If there are no lockers, don’t let your guard down or think this place might be as friendly as all the ones before, but WEAR YOUR MONEYBELT WHEN YOU GO TO SLEEP.

*Reading this back makes me laugh at myself a little. Last night I ordered in some food ‘cause I was having an extremely lazy Sunday, and spend as much on that as I would on an entire day there.

The making of dreams

Day XXXII – April 19

This morning we wake up with a new guy in our room. He tells us about his adventures with his Honda Win which he’d bought for $125 in Hanoi hoi an map about a month ago. He and some friends are driving down the freeway to Saigon. It’s a popular way travel this country, and sounds very appealing to me.
He tells us that whenever someone broke down, within 10 minutes a local would have arrived with the knowhow and facilities to repair the bike. The total of his repair costs so far: $25.
All these stories, even with the horrors of crashes and burned legs on exhaust pipes –everybody appearently gets those- make me that much more excited to come back to Vietnam and see this beautiful country’s hidden backyard, the pure local life you don’t get to see from the bus.

I am very glad I came, despite rushing through in just 9 days. But it is just a taster. I’ll be back.

Jenna is having trouble with her bankcard and it looks like that will take up all her time today, so I say goodbye to the friend that was probably the closest to traditional backpacker-friendship; no hassle, no exchange of info, no foamy “We’ll stay in touch”, just a hug and a “Nice to have met you, have a good trip!”
hoi an waterside
I rent a bicycle to go to the other beach by myself. This one is more beautiful, calmer, quieter; the road there is even more intriguing, taking me through fields and that backyard I just mentioned.
Today it’s sunny, that should help too. And again I can’t get over how marvelous the ocean is!

In the early afternoon I ride back to Hoi An and it’s smell of incense, and get my buspack ready; some sodapop, some water, some Oreo’s and other snacks; I’m looking at 48 hours of pretty much non-stop, all the way over to Siem Reap.
hoi an kids
Before I get to the bus I grab a quick bite with a street vendor. The place is crowded with kids still in their school uniforms; like all local clothing very pretty by the way. The boys’ are a lot like you’d expect them, suited up; but the girls wear beautiful white silk pullovers that split at their waist and hang down like gowns to their feet, over charming pants.
Again one of the parents that does speak English helps me out, points me to a seat and presents me with a plate of today’s dish: a fried bowl of dough with egg in it and some salad floating in a sort of sweet chilli soup and a pork sausage, 15.000d; a 10th of what I paid the other day, and extremely tasty!

At the bus agency I meet some Ausies, Kiwies and UK’s, young and elder couples and solo travelers; this ride’s much more international and I actually have people to talk to on the way.
Until lights-out at 8pm, when we all sort of doze off.
hoi an river

From a balcony in Hue

A few observations

On couples on the road, on traffic and baggage, on my own traffic progress, and on how Vietnam is a bit like what I imagine China to be like.

I’m meeting less of them now that I seem to have sort of broken loose from the beaten and organized path at last, though I did meet one of them on the Halong Bay trip; couples. I hadn’t imagined meeting so many of them.
Often out on the road together for about half a year. Pretty cool! I can only hope that by the time I’m ‘we’ again, we will be doing this sort of thing.
I don’t even think it’s that different. You’re not going to be in dorms so you wouldn’t be meeting as many people as you do there. Maybe that has something to do with why you meet so many of them in the arranged tours. But you probably will be left with more budget as you share your beds, meals, bikerents, taxies and all sorts of things. So you can afford these more expensive activities like hiking and rock climbing tours etc.
And they might go out a little less than the single serving traveler does. Though none of them I met were boring, or annoyingly cute and clingy. In fact they were all very nice to hang out with.
And hold on; the Welsch were a couple since before they set out together, and they did dorms.

The most common thing I’ve seen transported on a bike in between 2 people has to be: a baby. And then I’m not talking about a 4 year old; they’re put on there already at 4 month or younger even. No helmets of course; they wouldn’t fit…
Other curious objects I’ve seen crossing traffic were: refrigerators, LCD screens, cupboards, trees, (varying in size between bonsai and a regular 12 footer) and huge piles of boxes… Anything!
Dogs usually stand in the front, paws hanging over the steering wheel. And often it’s more than three people, just to be practical and stuff.
Down the highway near Chiang Mai I saw the biggest thing being transported, on the back of a pick-up; an elephant. Just daily business, I guess?

When we came in to Hanoi in that minivan and I first saw that insane traffic I was in fact a little scared about going in on foot. Just that same night though I found the confidence to throw myself in and cross with the greatest of eaze.
The day after I went on the back of that mototaxi and loved being right in the middle of it.
Then came the day for me to do it on my own, on a bicycle. I went in at a rather quiet hour, but did end up in quite a jam later on, yet still felt very relaxed.
And tomorrow I plan to try again, on a real bike.

It’s the language; phonetically, the way different use of syllables gives different meaning to the same word. And their harsch and hurried pronunciation.
They shout a lot more too; Buddhists don’t do that.
And they know the concept of being in a rush; also a big difference from the rest of Southeast Asia.
More than elsewhere the streets are hung with adds and are they trying to make a hard sell.

But I’m loving Vietnam, it’s all so beautiful! I guess it really is a new phase and needs a new while to get used to. Can’t wait to give that to them properly!

How to make the most out of your one-day-stay in Hue

onthewaytohue1Day XXIX – April 16

I wake up at 6am to the enthusiastic honking of the driver, the guy next to him chatting away in the same frantic manner.

And this is what I see:
To the left there are little brick and concrete cots shattered between the bright green fields that are still covered in the veil of morningmist, now turning yellow and orange with that big burning ball rising far behind the horizon, as the kids are rushing by in their school uniforms on their bicycles.

onthewaytohueTo the right is where the mountains are, vaguely scribbled grim line after line.

And before that lies another deep strip of those greenest fields, most of them rice, long straws standing fiercely straight in a basin that every now and then gets a chance to show it’s reflection like a sparkling gem. Some are different crops; variations of lettuces and cabbages, a banana tree here and there, some cornfields.
It’s weird how I still see dry riverbanks from time to time; with the amounts of water in the fields you wouldn’t expect this country to suffer any drought.
Supposedly we’re driving down highway #1. It’s possibly in worse shape than the highways of Laos. Or it just seems like that, because this driver doesn’t slow down one bit for bumps or when taking over. I conclude once more Vietnamese drive like crazy.

I delight myself over an oreo breakfast, and even more so about the locals on the bus doing the same. They are the ultimate bus-snack.

Once arrived in town, Tomas [GER] the other westerner who also gets off the bus here, and I look for a hostel together. The first decent one we find is the same chain I was in that first night in Hanoi, which I decided to ban. He settles.
I decide to look around some more. An hour later I have to admit with a sigh, they have the monopoly on dorm rooms. I go back to book one night; I’ve already confirmed my bus to Hoi An tomorrow morning.

How to make the most out of your one-day-stay in Hue:

You come in with the sleeperbus from Hanoi – perfectly comfortable to catch a few hours of sleep.
You’ll come in around 9am, so once you’ve fought off the motortaxies who all want to give you and that one other non-Vietnamese passenger a ride to a hotel, you’ve got plenty of time before check-in at 11am. If you’re looking for a dorm just go to Hue Backpacker Hostel.
bike hueFind a local market for some breakfast at a normal price; 10.000d a pineapple.
After you’ve got all your stuff sorted out and had a refreshing shower, go around the corner to rent a bicycle from Ms. Nam Thanh at 30.000d. Don’t forget to bring a map from the hostel.

Take a little tour through the citadel to begin with. It’ll give you a nice view on local life in this otherwise pretty crowded city.

And continue west over the Kin Long road. At the end a man will ask you to park your bike for 5.000d, some women will try to sell you overpriced water or a tour to the tombs. Ignore them and just walk up and wander around the pagoda. It’s up a hill so you’ll get a nice view and the garden is lovely quiet.
pagoda
Make sure you’re wearing your swimminggear ’cause on the way back the river will most likely tempt you for a dive.

This time cross the bridge right after the railwaytracks and take another right at the second bridge on your left hand. Take a right at the junction and follow the road for another 5 minutes.
I was looking for this pagoda Lonely Planet was elated about, but even the locals couldn’t point me to it. Instead I found this place that might have been a graveyard of some sort? Anyway, you’ll find this deserted looking place with many cool shrinelike structures covered by flowers and plants. Have fun discovering!
garden
After this you could follow the road some more, eventually you’ll drive into a belvedere, ‘s got some nice views. I wouldn’t recommand it necessarily though…
hue view
You might be craving for some cooled sugary drink after all that cycling. You’re not going to find it though. However you might find a stand where they sell cooled water, if you’re lucky.

hue mapOh and make sure you’ve got your sunlotion on. Otherwise the sun might carry an evil grin.
I’d forgotten mine in Vang Vieng, which wasn’t a problem in Vientiane, Hanoi or Halong Bay. But of course today I couldn’t find any. And I got burned good!

And the beach that the hostels map speaks of; it’s a fraud, there’s no such thing. So just go back to the other side of the track and hope you find a quiet spot. And that the sun hasn’t just finally been conquered by some clouds. Like the big ones.
Well at least it’s cooling down.
I’d better get my clothes back on and make my way back before the rains come pouring down…
Ooh, lightning! Hurry now.

Still. A good day in Hue! =)

Lesson learned: Asian business mentality means getting the best deal for everyone – yes they want to sell you something; they need to make a living, but they also want to make you a happy customer.

On the road to Hue

Day XXVIII – April 15

Another early morning, packing up my things again; it’s becoming a routine, and I’m getting better at it every time, it even seems like my bag’s getting lighter. Breakfast and goodbeys again.
hb
On the way back they dropped us at that shopping centre again. I gave in and got myself some sweets. They’re disgusting though.

I’m getting a little itchy about catching my sleeperbus to Hue tonight; it leaves Hanoi at 6pm, or so I’ve been told, so I have a pick up at the hostel at 5.30am.
And though it started out with them telling us we’d arrive at 4, they’ve already stretched it to 5pm. It’s definitely getting tight.

This trip to Halong Bay was cool.
Very touristic though, and I think I expected more of Halong Bay. I’ve seen too many limestone’s on the mainland to be completely stunned by these.
And it is too easy to capture it’s magic on picture, the real deal doesn’t add a terribly big lot to that… Plus the blanket of grey that just wouldn’t go away.
All in all, I’m not sure if I’d recommend it, especially for that price. But I had fun.

[I’m now back about a month, and am still obligated to live extremely low budget as I’ve had next to no income since then, but I seem to have settled well enough back into our pricerange. And I remember I really thougt it was a very expensive trip, 2 days all-in for €45,- but I now realize it really wasn’t that much. So to come back to the recommendation; make sure you set that amount aside in your budget. It ís worth it.]

I jump off the bus around the corner from the hostel, back in bustling Hanoi at 5.35 and rush down the street, panting as I arrive at the reception, where they tell me to sit down and wait a moment. The wait turns out to be 45 minutes.

The guy behind the desk is the guy that was bartending the other day, and with a giddy face he asks me if I had fun with David, making me blush while I tried to be cool about it, and then makes it worse by noticing the hicky that’s still sitting there plumply in my neck.
I sit down behind a computer to check my mail, and find a message from David.
I ran in to him this morning; he got on the exact same boat I’d been on, but there was no time for actual words. Now in this mail he tells me his travel plans have been altered so he won’t be coming after me, and we most likely won’t meet up again.
Behind me I hear a few girls babble and catch something about a boy and a little affair and hear the name David. A very common name… But I’m just going to go ahead and assume this boy really wasn’t as gentleman as he made believe, but in fact was the ladiesman I first made him out to be. Well, whatever. Nothing less than to be expected anyway.
bus ticket
When I’m done at the computer and check again at the desk to make sure I wasn’t forgotten, I get to talking with two Israeli also waiting for their pickup but heading for the opposite direction; Sapa, who try to convince me to come their way.

One of them, Alon, begins: “I have a story I want to tell you,” and ducks down to grab something from his pack. It’s a little photobook. “I took this plastic toy horse from home, and I traded it. I hope to eventually trade to a real horse, to travel my last destination, Mongolia.”
He has some pictures of the guy he traded for a sweater with, and some others, and then with the man that traded to a fishing rod; his last trade. Cool concept right?! Check it out on fromhorse2horse.blogspot.com Hope he makes it!

I realized on the boat I’d forgotten to pack my sarong again when I left here yesterday morning. So I ask if they found anything on that bed I never really used. They didn’t, but offer me one of their towels instead. Isn’t that sweet?

Five minutes before the bus is said to depart the station, a minivan comes to pick us up, and has another stop to pick up some more so we’re properly crammed in the back. Then the driver pulls over, gets out and another one gets in without any passing of words whatsoever.

I think this was the absolute oddest thing that happened during my entire trip.

Two blocks later we stop by the side of the road. Looks nothing like a bus station. But when I ask, the drivers points at a single bus that just pulled over. The others are told to sit and wait for their Sapa bus.
I ask what time we leave and after a lot of effort understand it’ll be another half hour.
So I decide I need a smoke. Sorry David (the German who lid my potentially last cigarette in Vang Vieng)
Oddly enough none of the streetvendors or shops there are selling those. But the next lady I ask, who doesn’t have them on her cart, asks me which brand I want and tells me to wait. She comes back 5 minutes later with two packs, asking only 2000d commission.
bunkbed
Here I am, one little Dutch girl on an odd bus with bunkbeds for seats – luckily I don’t have the size problem the other westerner on this bus does.
Nothing is explained to us. “Just go with it and don’t worry,” I tell myself. Of course it all turns out fine and we’re back on the road about a half hour later and eventually I even fall asleep.