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

A visit to My Son

Day XXXI – April 18

We get up bright and early and take another good look at the map.
I tried to last night, but the computers and internet are so slow, and we’re not supposed to use them after 11pm anymore so I didn’t want to wake the nightwatcher on that strecher in the middle of the mediaroom.
We walk over to that lady we’d made a deal with yesterday; one automatic Yamaha for the day, 2 helmets and a map, that turned out to be more like a business card, for 50.000 dong.
She was already waiting for us; when we asked her yesterday at what time she opened she said 6am. We said we’d be a bit later, but she probably didn’t get that part. After all, local life generally starts at 6am on this side of the world anyway.
DSC_0958
Jenna takes the first turn driving, flounders a bit on the way to a first gas station and can’t find the breaks in time so tips over the bike of an elderly man. He makes a big fuss about his dashboard that looks like it was already broken, but asks for 50.000d, so we won’t bother getting in to an argument.
We fill up and head out to the highway. Without any roadsigns in a language we can read, we have to stop a few times to ask for directions, and arrive at the My Son-gate an hour later.

At first we don’t see an official parking near the entrance. The lady running the catering facility waves us over and tells us she’ll watch our bike if we promise to have a drink with her after the temples, so we stumble to ride it up a little hillside.
When we get to the ticketoffice 100 meters further, it turns out the actual entrance is a 5 minute drive up ahead. With parking, we’re told, so we go back to get the bike and ride down another bumpy road through a somewhat magical forest.
DSC_1028
DSC_1007We get to the temple complex right at the end of a traditional dance performance and end up in a pile of tourists, just shuffeling into the park. For me this crowd takes a lot of the magic out of it, and the manmade path make it feel fake, like an amusementpark.
It reminds me of the place I once visited with my artschool class in the north of the Netherlands, where some artist build stacks of brick, for nature to cover up again.
I’ve heard too many stories selling it off like the Angkor Wat of Vietnam, had too many people tell me I’d love it; that must have raised the bar too high.
It’s a cool place though, out there in the green hills. The bright brown ancient brick buildings set off against their surroundings, while at the same time they merge again where grass and moss cover it as nature has taken over centuries ago. And when I get a moment all to myself and consider the age of it all, and the people who build it and their reasons to, the miracle almost touches me.

Afterwards we debate trying to make it to Marble Mountain, about 50 km to the other side of Hoi An. We should be able to get there in 2 hours.
We decide against it, out of concern for not knowing the way, the time we have left with the bike and the amount of fuel needed. Instead we’ll go back to the beach.
DSC_1034
My turn to drive.
First down that forest lane, then a sandpath through some fields, a turn and through a busy town and its’ traffic. Slowly I’m getting comfortable keeping up with the rest at 35 km/h
Then I turn onto the highway. Even in a car I don’t think I’ve ever driven faster than 60 km/h. I have to speed up to 70 sometimes not to be a danger. Such a thrill! For the bike aswell, it can hardly keep up and it’s almost hard to hold on to the steeringwheel.
We miss our exit, so I have to do a U-turn, right there on the highway. Luckily, they’re nothing like the highways we know; we’d probably say route national, and making U-turns probably isn’t a weird thing to be doing here at all.

We’ve not been at the beach for long, when the sky suddenly turns a mad green sort of grey. We have to make a run for it.
We figure we’ll have enough time to get back into town before the beast will be unleashed, and drive out of the parking lot with the first drops sipping down, and some stares like “they’re crazy” follow us.
A minute later we realize why… The rain is now beating down on us so hard, we have to stop. It feels like a million needles and I can’t even keep my eyes open. Not that it makes a difference; the haze is so thick you can’t see for more than 5 meters ahead. And both of us are already soaked to the bone.
So we find shelter in a roadside shop/diner with a local in poncho.

It takes half an hour till it’s calmed down to just a mild downpour. The roads are completely flooded and here and there our ankles are under water, but that makes the ride the more fun.
Everywhere people are out again. The kids coming out of school, splashing around; it’s like a waterfestival!
We quickly return the bike, drop our bags in the lobby of the hostel and run out for a walk with the water up to our knees, just because we can.
Apparently we’re the only ones seeing the fun in all that, and everybody looks at us again like we’re crazy. Doesn’t stop us kicking the water around, dancing and laughing it out.

Another great example of the Asian feel for business shows: no less than a minute after the downpour starts, those who just sold paper umbrellas against the sun, pull out another merch; ponchos, everywhere!

Good thing we chose against Marble Mountain too; we’d have been stuck up there now. Much less fun to be up a mountain in such a storm, that much closer to the lightning.

Just before dinner it finally clears up.
This time we go to the bright side of the river, and again find a heavenly meal at a very fair rate.
I have country pancakes; I am presented with a plate of fried shrimp cushions, salad, rice paper and a sesame sauce. The waiter shows me how to wrap the cushions with the salad in the paper and dip it. Yum!
We treat ourselves on dessert at that famous iceplace Green Cave and stuff our bellies to add to our already tired bodies.
We try a beer and a stroll over the nightmarket, but nothing can pull us out of it. We even suck at pool horribly, so turn in early.

The day I fell in love with Hoi An

Day XXX – April 17

My bus to Hoi An leaves Hue at 8am and arrives around noon.
I check in to Hop Yen Guesthouse, again just one hostel with a dormroom in this town. It’s where the bus droppes us off.
When I arranged my check-in with the strict lady of the house, she shows me to their dorm in the attic, three flights of stairs up. In a sterile looking room, four beds are lined against the wall, some other travelers belongings are scattered around, and I am pointed to the metal construction in the corner.
Up there I meet Jenna [19, UK] who spend 6 weeks in Hanoi teaching, just unpacking. And by proxy we’re now travelbuddies, for as long as it lasts.
Right away we plan a trip to My Son tomorrow, sharing the rent and responsibility of a bike; yay, it’s going to happen!

Before I came to Asia I don’t think I knew of My Son. I first heard about it when Madison was giving me tips, back in the Gibbon Treehouse. Then again when I was on the Halong Bay Cruiser; the UK lady and the French girls were jubilant about it and told me I HAD to see it. So I figured it’d be a nice daytrip when in Hoi An.
It’s like most things. Kuang Si I didn’t know about before I came here.
You hear about them on the road, when crossing travelers going in the opposite direction. Talk of place to be or have been is usually the first thing to come up.
Honestly, I had no more than a general idea of main landmarks and towns I wanted to visit, but most of what I saw, I did because of mouth-to-mouth and not what I read back home.
Also I’ve told you that before this trip I wasn’t a fan of Lonely Planet. The one I’ve carrying with me is completely worn down by now, so much have I been flipping pages, crossing, adding. Hardly a day goes by without it advising me on one thing or another. On the back it presumptuously calls itself the backpackers bible, but I’m starting to agree.

After freshening up, we go for a walk around the neighborhood. Hoi An is absolutely adorable, small and with a Mediterranean sort of feel that makes us crave a dive.
We rent some bicycles to check out the beach, a 15-minute ride along a river and a view to die for.
The beach itself is littered with fat, red tourist and local ladies persistently trying to sell snacks, shawls, massages etc.
The palm trees attempt at that tropical vibe, but the sky holds too many clouds today to be convincing. And that greyish ocean doesn’t appear like it either.
The water feels so great though! And it’s oh so nice to sit by the shore, to hear the ocean roaring in and out, to gaze at the vague mountains in a far distance.
And here’s for a little comedy: the locals just challenged some tourist boys to a game of football.

resto hoi anLater, when we get back to town and start looking for dinner, we’re once again confronted with the aggressive sales techniques that seem to be part of the Vietnamese culture, even in a calm town like this. So called Easyriders –a name some drivers that do mountaintrips gave themselves- and other mototaxies never let you pass them by without offering a ride.

Asia is tailor area, Vietnam being the main producer, and Hoi An the capital. Only 1 out of 10 retailers aren’t in the textile business. But should you ask, even they can still provide any piece of clothing or shoe you’d desire.
Other than that, this originally fishermanstown thrives on tourism. We see many families walking the streets.

As we stroll the quiet side of the quay, we let ourselves be dragged in to this empty restaurant. We didn’t have much of a lunch so we’re early anyway. Does give us the best table; just up the stairs, looking back to the other side of the river that’s completely covered in lanterns and cute little lights, and still feels like we’re sitting outside.
The menu is filled with all these local delicacies like fried fish in bananaleaf, springrolls, white roses (a jelly shrimp dumpling) won ton (a cushion of fried dough with a meaty stuffing and grilled fruits on top) and cao lao (a thick, shrimplike noodle) And it all tastes exquisite!
So on top of tailortown, Hoi An also receives a golden medial for foodie-heaven!
hoi an
As our table is right next to the street during dinner we’re being served a pile of ‘free bucket’ flyers to give us direction after.

bar hoi anThe first we look up, is in a little alley on the other side of the river, on one of the islands in the center of town. It’s nicely decorated, with a fancy bar, a pooltable in a reasonable state and dark red walls covered in greetings from all over the world and praises on the place. It is deserted though, and the music doesn’t give us enough reason to stay. Next.
A few bridges later, in an alley even further back, feeling even more deserted, we finally find the place. Old & New bar, it’s walls also covered in writing, this pooltable a lot less in one piece, we find some garrulous crowd sitting at the bar and end up staying till well past midnight.

Jenna found a flirt so I walk home alone, and for the first time I don’t feel completely safe. Alone and with my semi-pro camera that I usually leave in a locker when going out, right here in my bag. No less safe than I would in the same situation back home though, just to clarify.
The quiet streets with many dark corners and little noises around each of them, and the many taxies still driving around, each asking me if I need a ride…

But of course I make it to my bed safe and sound, and before I fall asleep I hear Jenna come in and crash.

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!