Friday, August 26, 2011

Vietnam - Nha Trang, Dalat, and the Central Highlands

First of all, if anybody is still reading this, thanks so much! Sorry I had blogger's block for so long. This was actually written back in January, and I am just now motivated to put it up. We have Nicaragua to report after this, and some climbing in the Tetons, so stay tuned, and check back every so often. If you want to see pictures of Nicaragua now, check out my new-ish blog Year-Thirty and click on the March archives.

Without further ado:


This last November/December I had a once in a lifetime opportunity to combine actual travel with my job. I took my ship over to Vietnam to the shipyard, and instead of flying straight home, I convinced the company to release me from their responsibility, and got a flight home 9 days later. This was my first time traveling in Asia, first time traveling without Grant since we met 10 years ago, and the first time traveling alone.
My ship in the dry dock. Notice the small people at the bottom of the dry dock!
The shipyard was about an hour and a half cab ride to the beach capital of Vietnam, Nha Trang… So this was my first stop after gleefully running down the gangway with the second mate who was also going to spend time in Vietnam. We shared a cab ride to town and a beautiful hotel that the second mate’s girlfriend had graciously reserved two rooms for us. For $50 I was across from the beach, had two comfortable queen sized beds (I only needed one), a big tv with many English channels, high speed wireless Internet, fantastically wonderful nice staff, and was across the street from a great microbrewery! Things were going to be good, I could tell. (Light Hotel Lonely Planet and Moon…put it in your books. Grrrr….)
Nha Trang Beach rainy season; women selling lobster on the beach
The next day was spent wandering around totally overwhelmed by the traffic (which is nothing compared to Saigon or Hanoi, from what I hear), motorbike taxi’s, and tours; “MOTOR BIKE, MOTOR BIKE, MOTOR BIKE!!!! Hey lady, MOTOR BIKE” Me: “no thank you, no thank you, NO THANK YOU STOP FOLLOWING ME!!!!!” I had to run back to the hotel and lie down for awhile, and panic stricken, left a note with my friend and colleague that I needed to meet him sooner rather than later as I was overwhelmed. I managed to get it together, hired a taxi for a ride to some old ruins, and then had a pleasant evening with my friend, where I was able to get a better outlook on life.

Cham towers on the hill; One of the chapels in the Cham Towers

Seeing as it was then rainy season, and super hot, I decided to book it up to the mountains to Dalat where I would be more comfortable with lower temps and fewer spring-break 20-somethings in bikinis. My friend had also planned to go there, but later, so we decided we would try to meet up later via e-mail. I grabbed a 5 hour bus ride through the reputable Sinh CafĂ©, got off the bus at their company hotel, looked at a room, and decided it was good enough for me. I opted for an upgrade to an $18 room (from $12) and got a comfortable full bed, window, tea service, private clean bath with all the toiletries including toothbrush and toothpaste, high speed wireless internet, breakfast, wonderful staff, in a safe neighborhood close to the central market. I didn’t even try to haggle, as for one, duh, and for two, it was less than what the guide book said it would be.

Rooftops of Dalat Central Market
My first evening was spent wandering around town. Dalat is on a series of hills with winding, convoluted streets that I never got a handle on. I was slightly overwhelmed by the offers of motorbikes and “easy riders” offers, when all I really wanted was a beer and to take a deep breath. I accomplished this well enough, though almost had another breakdown.
Woman working on silk embroidery art (see below); Giant Golden Buddha
Pencil drawing for silk embroidery; The finished silk "painting"

Awful Elephant Rides; Beautiful hanging flowers at Truc Lam Meditation Center

I really wanted to go on an “easy rider” tour, as I had read about how wonderful it is; just you and your guide on a motorcycle on the open roads. It was hard to tell who the “real” ones were, plus I was overwhelmed by offers, as I think I’ve mentioned a few times. I started walking with my guidebook to get a feel for the town and wrap my mind around the rest of my time, when up pulled a motorcycle. An American tourist got off the back and was all smiles. The driver suggested we talk, then left me alone. I asked the tourist if he had a good time, did he feel safe, and would he recommend this guide? Yes, yes, yes. So with his reassurance and the driver’s faded “easy rider” jacket, I up and hired Titi for a day trip the next day. The cost was to be…$20…for 8 hours.
Seeing as it was Thanksgiving in America, the tourist from Portland and I decided to have a few rounds and dinner, to which he was so happy to see another American on Thanksgiving, that he insisted on paying. It was fun, plus I got to play with the owner’s nephew, who taught me how to write my name (I was missing the appropriate accents) and then painstakingly taught me how to pronounce his name. It was a lot of fun. My new friend offered to walk me home. I said no thanks, and he didn’t push it. I should have taken him up on the offer, as I was still pretty turned around, and it took me a good 20 minutes (a long time when you’re half in the bag in a strange country at night and don’t speak one word of the language), but I made it back just fine.
Thien teaching me Vietnamese at the original Peace Cafe

The next morning Titi was waiting for me at 0800 sharp. He handed me a helmet started the engine, and indicated for me to get on. “Uh…Where do I put my hands?” He confidently patted his sides and said I could steady myself right there. Duh. I just felt weird as I was on the back of a motorcycle with some strange man, but it is the norm, so I hopped on and off we went.
Me riding on the back of the motorcycle with Titi

Once we were out of the traffic of the city, which scared the crap out of me, I had the most incredible time of my life, short of when I used to jump out of airplanes. It’s hard to explain, but I felt so free, with the wind in my face with a totally open view of the world, plus I didn’t have to drive! At one point he stopped, pointed up the hill, and told me to walk to the top, then down the other side where he would pick me up. Uh…What? HmmmOk, I guess I’ll take myself on a hike. I knew he would probably be there, as I hadn’t paid him yet, but still breathed a sigh of relief when I found him waiting for me as he said. At another point he pulled over, and told me to start walking down the road. He said he would pick me up further down the road. He patted his butt saying I must “rest my bum”. Makes sense I guess, but still a little disconcerting to walk alone down the road in the middle of nowhere. Of course, there was no reason to worry.

Me overlooking "coffee forever"; Dalat agriculture
He showed me many things like coffee plants, some local indigenous villages, took me on a hike to a waterfall, a buddist temple, silk factory, broom factory, rice noodle factory, and it went on and on. When I say factory, I mean a small room or backyard in somebody’s shack of a home. That’s how Vietnam is, small-scale production, truly made by hand products that are sold within the local community. It was awesome. Unfortunately, my camera battery died, so I don't have pics of a lot of this stuff, not to worry though because...
Drying coffee by walking through it; coffee machine separating the hull from the bean
Coffee drying in the sun; a coffee bean deconstructed

Titi next to a robusta coffee plant; Silk machine weaving silk threads into cloth

Silk machine unraveling silk from the cocoon; closeup of feeding silk cocoon threads into machine
It was so awesome that I hired him to spend three more days driving me back to Nha Trang!
By this time my friend and co-worker had made it to Dalat and had spent a day touring the town himself. We met for dinner where I tried to convince him to go on the motorcycle trip with me. He would have none of it, though I implored him to reconsider. Alas, it was just me and Titi.

Dalat Central Market at night; Dragon Fruit
First thing in the morning, I was handed a new helmet with a face shield, and was told we had brand new tires. Off we went.
We saw so much stuff, it’s hard to list it all. Some of it included a tofu factory, the dragon pagoda, back to the silk factory at my request, more coffee, etc.. We were heading towards Lak Lake. We saw more beautiful scenery, mostly green coffee plantations. Some parts we traveled through, Titi explained, had only recently opened up for travel as there was much unrest amongst the ethnic minorities and government. Unrest meaning gun fights. The government wizened up, apparently, and provided them with food, some work, and basic infrastructure. So now travel is possible for easy riders to ply their trade. Lucky me!

River; road/river-side fish monger

Passion fruit canopy; boy who sold us passion fruit right off the tree

Raising silk worms in random ethnic minority house; Titi giving "ethnic minority" children candy (so they will pose for tourist photos. beans, rice, and coffee drying

Person smoking tobacco; example of an ethnic minority house. The circular basket is used for silk worms

A differest style "ethnic minority" house, on stilts; Cows and other livestock live under these houses
At one point, in the jungle, he stopped, handed me some passion fruit, and told me to start walking and he would meet me down the road. Of course I was used to these “bum rest stops” which are a great idea, but still… I started laughing out loud as I was in the middle of the jungle, walking down a road alone. I mean, really. What would my mother say? (turns out she assumed I would be doing stuff like this, so go figure).
Soon after that walk, it started to rain. Then it really started to rain. Out came the rain gear, and we pressed on. At one point it started raining so hard we absolutely had to pull over for lunch and wait it out. I was still upbeat, and having a good time.

Titi in rain gear pushing our ride with "ethnic minority taxi" coming down the road; floating home. These are more common in the Mekong Delta
We made it to Lak Village at sunset. I walked through the village, the sun quickly setting, and a big group of children on the back of a “ethnic minority taxi” started cheering, waving, and gesturing at me to take their picture.
Titi picked me up on the other side and off we went to the hotel on the lake. Titi and I had dinner together, I drank some beers, and passed out.
Lak Lake!

The next morning, after a nice breakfast, we hopped on the bike for another day of cruising. It was raining pretty hard again. After stopping in at some more ethnic minority homes, we hiked in the rain to some waterfalls in the jungle. I went over a bridge that I had no business trusting with my life, but hey, I was on an adventure wasn’t I?

I felt so umcomfortable paying to pose with people!; Inside the house. The floors are bamboo, so extrememely strong despite what looks like gaps. This particular village makes their own booze traditionally, and that is what goes in those vases

The bad bridge; the good bridge

Close up of part of the bad bridge; one of the waterfalls
Speaking of bridges, at one point we pulled over. There were two bridges: one was the main street that cars and motorcylces were going over, and the other was an unused old war-era concrete structure. Titi indicated I should walk over the old bridge and he would meet me on the other side. I was confused, and asked again which bridge I should walk over. He gestured again, and lined me up for the old bridge. Well, what the hell. So I started walking. I was half-chased by a dog past some little roadside shops, went up over a small hill right before the bridge, and started sliding down the other side. I stopped sliding just in time to avoid the huge hole at the start of the bridge. Confused but still feeling adventurous, I thought I could probably jump that far, but looking at the rest of the bridge, and thinking to myself that I didn’t really want to die on my adventure, said “Fuck This” to anybody who was listening, turned around, and headed for the real bridge. And there was Titi, waiting for me on the modern bridge half way across. I will ever know if I misunderstood him, or if he saw me turning back and hustled over to meet me. Either way, we carried on, and I did not cross that bridge!

After stopping at a brick factory; a place on the side of the road where some guy was making stone blocks out of granite by hand;

and seeing many more beautiful vistas (mostly coffee), we made in to Buon Me Thoun (boon-meh-toon). Buon me Thon is the capital of the Central Highlands famous for the coffee grown in the surrounding hills (that we had just spent three days driving through). Exhausted, I asked if maybe I could spend some time alone that night. Titi reluctantly agreed I could have dinner by myself.
Random tree alter in Buon me Thon ; evening market scene in Buon Me Thon
Luckily there was a vegetarian restaurant nearby so I wouldn’t need Titi to help me with ordering (he found me great, real vegetarian food at every roadside place we stopped at, including Pho!).
First I wanted a beer, so I wandered down the street and went to what looked like a hip bar. I sat down, and tried to order a beer. In what was a hilarious exchange of me pointing at the beer I wanted, Saigon Red, and trying to order water, them telling me they were out, me getting out the phrase book, I ended up with a cup of hot water and the beer I wanted in the first place that they said they were out of. Who really knows. Buon Me Thoun in not in any way on the tourist track despite being a big hub, so absolutely nobody I ran into spoke English. The teenagers who were serving me gestered for my phrase book, and attempted to converse in English with me. They were way better than I was at Vietnemese. It was fun, but being teenagers, they grew annoyed with me pretty quickly. I drank my beer, didn’t order another, and left for the vegetarian restaurant.
Happily seated surrounded by posters of famous people who had either eaten there or were vegetarian(?) I happily started pointing at things to order. As soon as I got my tea, in popped Titi. He saw me, and came over to say hello. I asked if he would join me, he said no, he was eating somewhere else, but he would see me later. I finished my meal, waited and waited, didn’t see him, so shrugged and got up to leave. As soon as I had my coat on, Titi popped in again to escort me back to the hotel. Apparently he was watching me, probably all night, to keep me safe. I asked him if he wanted to grab a beer with me. He said “I think better you get beer to go for hotel” Fine. My chaperone, under no circumstances, was going to let me have fun. But hey, why did I hire him in the first place? We got some beers, he walked me to the hotel, then insisted I go to my room. He sat in the lobby and watched me go up the stairs. I have a feeling he sat there for hours making sure I didn’t sneak out. I like to think he was concerned for my safety because he cared about me, but I think really it was because I hadn’t paid him yet…
After a fitful night of no sleep, I got up at 6 and went down for coffee frowning at the rain. Titi was up having coffee too. We ordered breakfast, and more coffee, both staring at the rain outside. Titi was on his cellphone constantly. He got me chatting with a fellow driver about my job (everybody was suitably impressed I was an officer on big ships). Eventually Titi looked at me and said that “maybe it would be better you take bus to Nha Trang. Too much rain, you uncomfortable”. I was shocked, though he was right, I was pretty weary of the rain and I was tired, but I told him I wanted to finish the trip. He made some more phone calls, then again said I should take the bus. He then said the roads very well could be flooded. I tried asking him if it was safe, or if he was just afraid I was uncomfortable. The nuance of what I was asking escaped him, and he said fine, we will ride. He made another call, and said the roads might be ok. I thought to myself “Only an idiot would ignore her guide’s advice about taking a bus instead of a motorcycle because the roads were flooded” But hey, I was on an adventure and I loved the motorcycle.
Off we went. First, instead of wrapping my feet in plastic bags like the day before, he instructed me to wear my sandals instead. The whole time I had been wearing shoes as I did not want to risk harm to my feet. I complied though. Soon enough he pulled over and started shopping for rubber boots for himself! I’m like, oh shit. By this time we were a half hour out of town. We started off again, but I remembered my “only an idiot” thoughts, tapped him on the shoulder, and asked him to take me back to the bus station.
That was the biggest mistake of my trip.
After a tearful farewell at the bus station, I boarded my bus. The ride was awful. The driver was jerking around, slamming on the breaks almost crashing several times. I felt much safer on a motorcycle than on the bus! Plus, the roads were clear, and it even stopped raining. I was heart broken. Plus the scenery was stunning, but I couldn’t get pictures as I was in the fucking bus. No culture, no factory tours, no war stories, no pictures, just a crappy bus ride back into the hot lowlands.
Thank you Titi!
I forced myself to have a pleasant afternoon souveneir shopping and saying goodbye to Nha Trang.
I will always regret not finishing my ride, but will cherish the 3 days plus a morning I rode with Titi through the Central Highlands of Vietnam. It is an adventure I recommend to everybody, though maybe it would be better in the dry season